I have been quiet for a bit. Just a bit perplexed with writing…feeling as if I could not write one word ever again. Alas, I am back — on this day September 21, 2014 — 25 years after Hurricane Hugo strove to destroy the beautiful City of Charleston, SC.
So many people cannot comprehend what it is like to remain in a city during a hurricane. While it is true, I did consider making plans to leave, or even to go to a shelter, I chose to remain here in Charleston. Checking with the shelters I was told I could not bring my animals. At the time, I had two — Muffy, a sweet but hyper little mutt terrier and a small poodle named Buttons. I could not leave my animals and my husband was in the National Guard at the time, activated to work in the downtown areas of Charleston, so I decided to remain so I could check on my animals and keep them safe. Working at a university, I volunteered to assist with students. I supervised over 60 of them during the storm.
Although I have survived tornadoes, I could not understand why the media kept saying to fill your car with gas. Make certain you have cash. Have enough water to drink and enough food to eat for at least three to five days. I laughed. Why would I need my car filled with gas. Why would I need cash and food. After all, it was only a hurricane.
Little did I know!
On September 21, before the storm hit on that evening, I checked on the house, making certain my animals were cared for with water, food and the little necessities I leave for them while I am at work. I closed all of the hall doorways, left food, towels, water and all was well. My home is a brick foundation so I wasn’t concerned with flooding or a disaster. I prayed that all would be fine, and it was. On the evening of Hurricane Hugo, I hunkered down with 60 students in a historical brick building in downtown Charleston. As the rushing, roaring winds increased, the students were horrified, so we moved them from the second floor of the building to another floor where there were no windows. Within an hour, the students fears eased as we sang, told jokes and laughed. Ever so slowly the students stopped talking and laughing. I grabbed a flashlight, walked around the wooden floors, noticing many of the students huddled together — sleeping.
I touched a portion of a brick wall, able to see outside from the cracks of the loose bricks. I could hear the wind whistling…crying…screaming…I said a silent prayer. Moments later, I heard quiet. The eye of the storm. As the calmness eased my fears, I realized this would probably be one of the longest, most frightening nights of my life. How I longed to be inside my home, huddled in a blanket with my animals.
Listening to a portable radio describing the events of the hurricane, I counted the night away. I did not have a cell phone at the time, nor did we have internet capability. The building had emergency lighting, with exception it was not working, so we moved around the floors slowly while keeping our arms outstretched, carefully moving so we did not disturb the students. The room was a large brick warehouse, totally dark. No windows nearby. The only light I saw was when I found a few loose bricks and watched the lightning outside. There was a blanket of darkness everywhere.
Early the next morning as students awoke they asked me if I slept. “No,” I said. “I’ve been here all night.” One student nudged my shoulder. “I didn’t think you slept. Your makeup is still perfect.”
The door to the warehouse opened. Slowly we moved downstairs. The storm was gone. Breakfast was waiting for all of us downstairs, on the second floor. After breakfast many of the students wanted to go outside but I discouraged it. “Live wires are down, along with trees. It isn’t safe for us to leave yet.”
About an hour later my husband arrived, dressed in his National Guard uniform. He rushed to hug me, whispering for me to keep the students inside. “The city looks like a war zone,” he said.
A few hours later, students gone and the university shutting things down, I strolled slowly to my car, careful not to step on downed power lines while being ever so thankful that I had parked it in a garage. I anticipated the car having windows shattered, debris covering it. Much to my surprise, my car was safe with no apparent damage. Driving home, I was lost. The roads were hard to see due to the abundance of hurricane debris. Gone were the familiar street signs and landmarks. Roads were thick with debris, boats, cars, boards, roofs, tin, metal, tree branches and so much debris, it was difficult to determine if I was on the correct side of the road, so I made many detours while my car crawled over branches and the thick debris. I saw an abundance of tin roofs in the road. Yachts. Boats. A tracker trailer, overturned. Driving home to Mt. Pleasant was quite a challenge, and when I turned towards my home, I could not drive down my street. Trees were everywhere. I managed to park my car three blocks from my home. Carefully, I walked, constantly looking for downed power lines, snakes and other creatures.
When I arrived at home, I noticed several homes in my neighborhood were damaged. Tree branches were slammed into the roofs. A couple of homes were missing walls. I walked around the front of my house, opened the door, found my dogs, hugged them and examined my home. All appeared to be ok until I walked towards the back door. The ceiling in the living room was opened with a large tree branch resting on the portion of a missing roof. The ceilings in the back room were wet. Trails of water were on the carpeting. I grabbed the leashes and carried the dogs outside, still cautious of things I might find in the back yard. Several trees were down and my above ground swimming pool was missing — completely. The only part of the swimming pool left was some of the framework. Debris from the pool was tossed around my yard, but my home was safe. A bit injured but I was thankful we had survived.
The dogs and I returned to the house. Cuddling them in my arms, I cried tears of thankfulness. My home was safe. Many people in my neighborhood would return to discover a home so shattered they would need to live elsewhere. Phil and I had been blessed. Our home was damaged, but livable and Muffy and Buttons had survived. A bit shaken, but safe. We were blessed.
I reached to turn the TV on, to get the latest news, realizing we had no power, I laughed. I walked outside again, finding something I did not expect lying in the grass. The Post and Courier had published a newspaper about Hurricane Hugo. Wishing I had a hot cup of coffee, I opened the newspaper. Today was a new, beautiful day in Charleston, SC. Looking like a war zone, I said a silent prayer, hoping no one had died in the storm. Yes, today was a new day. A day to give thanks for the little things in life. Health. Safety. A home a bit tarnished from the storm, but a safe haven for me to rest and be thankful that we had survived.
Perhaps you are curious what I learned from Hurricane Hugo. My response is — to be thankful for the little things in life. If you live in an area where torrential storms happen, please listen to the forecast and take the suggestions shared seriously. I did not fill my car with gas. After all, after the storm, the stores would open and I could get gas. NOT. By the time stores and stations were able to open, the lines were long. Lessons learned.
Have cash. I did not. Fortunately, the university I worked for allowed us to borrow money from them. I borrowed $20.00, paying it back when I was able to get cash. Lessons learned.
Food — non perishable. Since my husband was activated with the National Guard, I did not have much food. By the third day of no power, I cleaned out the fridge, tossing everything in the trash. I managed to find several cans of tuna fish in the pantry, so I made a big batch of tuna fish. I ate dry tuna fish sandwiches for lunch and dinner until it was gone. Funny…I haven’t eaten tuna fish since Hugo!
On the third day, I discovered an old phone in the closet — the type that did not require electricity. I connected it, got a dial tone and phoned my insurance company to file a claim. Meanwhile, I phoned my sister and other family and friends, to let them know we were AOK. On the tenth day of surviving Hugo, our power returned. Three weeks later, the insurance adjuster arrived, apologizing for the delay in responding. I made a fresh pot of coffee, he walked through the house, taking notes and photographs and responded that he could set us up in a hotel while repairs were made. I smiled at him, thanking him for his compassion but I had a bed to sleep in, a home to live in while some of my neighbors were living in campers or moving to small apartments. “We’ve been blessed,” I said.
Surviving in a hurricane taught me appreciation for life. I’m still not certain what I will do the next time we are required to evacuate a storm. In 1999, during a hurricane watch we were supposed to evacuate, and we did — fighting traffic for nine hours, moving only 57 miles on Highway 41. I promised myself that if there was another evacuation, I would stay at home and I probably will.
Let’s just say — the City of Charleston is extremely limited with evacuation routes. It is a nightmare to sit in traffic, bumper-to-bumper, while anticipating a hurricane. Next time? I think I’ll stay at home!