Hugo would weaken significantly once it hit dry land.
That, at least, was the thinking of the National Weather Service on September 21. While the winds and rains were expected to still be powerful by the time Hugo’s remnants reached inland cities like Columbia and Charlotte, NWS advisories issued in advance of the storm were worried more about flooding or tornadoes. Forecasters still expected Hugo to downgrade into a tropical storm and begin breaking up as it left its warm weather source in the Atlantic Ocean.
Roughly 150 miles from the Atlantic in York County, only a marginal staff was manning the emergency operations center overnight from September 21-22.
“We were looking at a worst-case situation of winds gusting above 50 miles an hour and tornadoes around the time school buses would’ve been on the road (the morning of the 22nd),” then-York County emergency management director Cotton Howell said. “That was what we considered to be the absolute worst-case. And boy were we wrong.”
Most of the state’s emergency response resources had been deployed south to handle the expected humanitarian disaster along the coast.
But Hugo didn’t cooperate.
Hurricane-strength winds continued to blow well inland for six hours after the storm came ashore. 109 miles-per-hour gusts were recorded at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter (roughly the same speed as had been measured in Charleston). 90 MPH winds were measured at the Charlotte airport’s control tower before it was evacuated.
No one could ever remember a hurricane hitting so hard this far inland. And it caught the state completely off-guard.
“That was something nobody had ever really thought could happen,” said Robert Stewart, chief of the State Law Enforcement Division at the time. “That was a good lesson learned.”
Emergency officials had been making similar predictions to media in the Sumter community. Sumter County public safety director Victor Jones held a briefing with reporters the morning of September 21 as Hugo churned off the South Carolina coast.
Jones reiterated National Weather Service forecasts: Hugo should not have too bad of an impact this far away from the coast, but there was a good chance of strong winds and minor damage. He added the emergency command center would be operating during the storm.
Among those in attendance were WIBZ radio station general manager Ray Reich and its operations manager/morning anchor J.R. Berry. Reich said the two men decided after that meeting to buy a backup power generator for the station. Later that morning, they found just what they needed at a Sumter store. Reich called the generator purchase “the best thing I ever did.”
By 8:00 that night, it became obvious that Hugo was going to hit Sumter nearly as hard as it had hit the coast. WIBZ called its employees in to work and prepared for a long night. Around 9:00 p.m. the power went out at the station’s transmitter tower 20 miles outside away near the Wedgefield community. As the generator kicked in, a power surge tripped the circuit. Reich decided to go find out what went wrong, taking his brand-new car and one of the station’s on-air personalities with him.
They made it out there without incident and Reich flipped the switch. But the situation deteriorated quickly on the return trip.
“It was like an atomic bomb had gone off,” Reich said. “Every road we tried to go back on had telephone poles and trees across it with live power wires.”
A 30-minute trip to Wedgefield became an hour-and-a-half on the return. During the drive back to the station, Reich said the new car was pelted by wind and rain, along with the metal roof of a tobacco shed and a highway sign that had come flying across the road.
“It was quite an experience,” he recalled. “Quite frankly… if I had known it was that bad, we probably should not have made that venture out there. It really was very, very dangerous to be out on the road. But ignorance is bliss and we didn’t know any better.”
It was not a good night for Reich’s brand-new car. The powerful winds nearly tore the passenger door off its hinges once the vehicle arrived back at the studios.
Hugo had downgraded slightly by this point. It was still a Category 2 storm, however, and still deadly.
Berry, who now works as an anchor at WLTX-TV in Columbia, came back into the station as things began getting hairy outdoors. Both Berry and Reich decided the anchor would go on the air starting at 11:30 p.m. to take calls and answer questions about the storm that was just starting to pelt the region.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Berry said. “We’d never been through anything like this before.”
Immediately the calls started coming in. The new generator had paid off. Every other radio station from Summerville to Florence had been knocked off the air and frightened listeners were asking for advice or calling to say what they’d seen in their own areas.
But many callers just wanted to let their loved ones know they were okay.
“You’ve got to understand, this was before cell phones and peoples’ (landline) phone service was going out,” Berry said. “They were trying to get messages to their loved ones as things continued to get worse and worse through the night.”
Law enforcement and civil defense officials also called in, giving safety tips and telling people to stay indoors.
However, WIBZ’s morning anchor kept waiting for the inevitable bad break. He and other employees noticed a satellite dish welded on the outside of the studios was “bending” in the strong winds. The dish needed to be pointed directly at the Wedgefield tower for the signal to transmit properly. But the winds were instead pushing the dish so much that it was pointing well off-line.
But the station never went off the air during the storm, even though its power cut out and water began leaking from the ceiling.
“Somehow, some way, the signal was bouncing off the ground and still making it out to our transmitter tower in Wedgefield,” Berry said. “We stayed on throughout the entire duration of those strong hurricane winds.”
“We being on the air that night was nothing short of a miracle. Sure, we’d planned in advance and had generators at the transmitter site and at the radio station. But scientifically, I don’t think we should’ve still been on the air.”
Ironically a telephone pole fell just as the storm was ending, finally knocking out the station’s phones. But by that point the situation was calming down and the calls were slowing. Roughly 200 homes had been destroyed in the Sumter area, while another 1,000 more were damaged.
“It was just one of the scariest nights of my life,” Berry said. “As a broadcaster, being on the air, we didn’t know if the roof of the building was going to be blown off. We didn’t know if the building was just going to be blown away.”
While Hugo was easing off in Sumter an hour before sunrise, it was still letting Rock Hill and most of eastern York County feel the brunt of its power.
By this point, Cotton Howell knew it was indeed a hurricane hitting the Catawba region. Staffers at the emergency operations center noticed the wind was making noises they had never heard before or since. They also spotted flashes of what they thought at first to be lightning, but soon realized were transformers blowing out across Rock Hill.
But state emergency officials discounted that Hugo was still a Category 1 hurricane five hours after coming ashore. “Even the National Weather Service didn’t have a grasp on it,” Howell said. “We’d call and say that we thought we had hurricane-force winds here. And they’d say, ‘Oh, no. It couldn’t be.’ Basically, no one could get their head around that we were still seeing hurricane-force winds that far inland.”
Rock Hill radio stations WRHI and WRHM were also still on the air. But, unlike their Sumter counterpart, they had been turned over entirely to emergency officials. Rock Hill’s entire power grid was destroyed in the storm and debris so extensive it would take nearly two years to remove littered streets, yards, and lots.
“We were so underprepared and not ready to deal with something of that magnitude,” Howell said.
State officials had no plan already in place to handle hurricanes in northern South Carolina. At the time, the state hurricane response plan only covered the seven coastal counties. It took several days for officials to realize just how extensive the damage was.
By then, they had the largest cleanup in state history on their hands.