Hurricane Hugo: 20 Years Later

Hurricane Hugo.

Hurricane Hugo on September 21, 1989.

High resolution (Credit:NOAA)

On September 21, 1989, Hurricane Hugo barreled inland at Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, as a massive Category 4 storm. It leveled beachfront properties, tossed fishing boats into the streets, wreaked havoc and destruction on Carolina communities from the coast to hundreds of miles inland, and threatened the lives of everyone in its path.

The Horror of Hugo

Imagine families huddling together in small inner hallways, pets whining, babies crying, and the house creaking under the weight of ferocious wind outside. They followed the hurricane’s progress toward Charleston on battery-powered radios long after the electricity went out… until all radio stations went eerily silent.


South Carolina home before Hurricane Hugo.

High resolution

Whipping wind snapped branches off trees overhead, uprooted others and ripped shingles off roofs. All people could do was hug each other tightly and pray that the trees would fall away from their house and that the roof would hold up. This lasted most of the night as they sat in darkness, wondering in fear if their beloved Charleston had been wiped off the map.

People emerged in hope on September 22, only to step outside and fully realize the horrendous impact of the night’s events. Power lines were lying in the street, ancient oak trees were uprooted, fences were horizontal, everything not anchored was toppled and carried into neighbors’ yards, and signs were twisted beyond recognition by winds reaching 140 miles per hour.

Many community streets were underwater from storm surge ranging from 10 to 20 feet. But the truth is that Charleston miraculously dodged a bullet that day. If the storm had made landfall just 25 miles to the south, the whole peninsula would have been under water.

The Recovery

Same home after Hurricane Hugo.

Same home after Hurricane Hugo.

High resolution

The weeks following Hugo were extremely difficult. Lines formed outside of grocery stores, gas was scarce, bottled water had to be trucked in since the water was not safe to drink, and the electricity was out for what seemed like an eternity in the early days of a muggy Lowcountry autumn.

What we hear most often at the NOAA National Weather Service from folks who did not evacuate is: Never Again. Fortunately the hardest hit beach-front areas, where homes were literally blown off their foundations, were nearly 100 percent evacuated. This limited the Charleston death toll to 13 – far below the thousands of lives lost when the Category 3 “Sea Islands” hurricane struck Charleston’s barrier islands in 1893 without warning.

Those who rode out Hugo likely do not need a reminder of the sights and sounds of that night. But the Charleston population has grown exponentially in the last 20 years, bringing an influx of new people who have never lived through a storm of this magnitude.

Same home after Hurricane Hugo.

Same home after Hurricane Hugo.

High resolution

The Charleston landscape today bears few physical scars from Hugo. Debris has long-since been removed the streets, trees have been replanted trees, signs reposted, roofs replaced roofs, and homes rebuilt. The sand dunes that were once pounded down and washed away are now on the mend.

Learn From the Past, Prepare for the Future

The Atlantic has been relatively quiet so far this year, but it’s worthwhile to reflect on the experience of 20 years ago to ensure we remain vigilant for next time a major hurricane strikes.

Invest in strong emergency planning and readiness. But remember, your personal decisions decide your fate. Regardless of how prepared your city may be, you are responsible for your own safety.

For more information, visit the Hurricane Hugo 20th Anniversary Web page. NOAA logo.

Hurricane Hugo ranks as the seventh most costly hurricane in U.S. history, causing $13.5 billion in damage when adjusted for inflation. At the time it was the costliest hurricane, upstaged in 1992 by Hurricane Andrew.


NOAA Resources:

NOAA StormReady® Program
NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards

Adopted from a guest column by Mike Emlaw, published in the Charleston, S.C. Post and Courier on September 20, 2009.