Twenty-five years ago tonight, I spent one of the most terrifying nights of my life curled up with my wife, Sharon, on our fold-out sleeper sofa, listening to our neighborhood ripped apart by the fury of Hurricane Hugo.
A quarter of a century ago. Wow. As you know I’m a guy who’s pretty conscious of history and the passage of time. But this just floors me.
The weirdest thing about that night: We lived in Rock Hill, S.C., just south of Charlotte, N.C. We were 180 miles away from where Hugo made landfall near Charleston.
We expected some wind and rain. But we didn’t have a clue we’d be struck by a full-scale hurricane — one that had spun up to Category 4 in strength before making landfall and wasn’t officially downgraded to a tropical storm until well after it ripped through our area.
In the Caribbean and in the U.S., Hugo did about $10 billion in property damage. Some folks in the region were without electricity for up to three weeks. About 100 people died in total, although — if memory serves — only six or seven in the U.S.
It was a huge event in the history of my home state and in the memories of any of us who were in Hugo’s path.
The Post and Courier of Charleston commemorated the day today by asking the question: What if it happened again today?
As you can see from the deck: It would be a mess. The feds use outdated software to plan for hurricanes and, therefore, they consistently underestimate impact. And Charleston, surrounded by water, is particularly vulnerable to storms of this size.
Those links go to today’s main stories. Average daily circulation for the Post and Courier is 87,817.
The Herald-Journal of Spartanburg focused on the damage Hugo did in Charleston that night.
Read the story here. Circulation for the Herald-Journal is 31,940.
The folks in Florence led today’s paper with a vintage sepia-toned picture of devastation around a local motel the next morning.
No one was quite sure where Hugo would hit, so tourists and residents alike fled the coastal regions as the storm approached. They were surprised to take such a fierce hit that far inland.
Find the anniversary story here. Average daily circulation for the Florence Morning News is 31,237.
The State of Columbia retold one of the most compelling stories from that night: Folks in McClellanville, a tiny fishing community maybe 30 miles from ground zero on the Isle of Palms…
…huddled together on the highest ground in town — the local high school — far back enough from the waterfront that it should have been a safe refuge.
Hugo produced a storm surge of more than 20 feet. Water moved inland, surrounded the school and poured in through broken windows and around door frames. Terrified evacuees, gathered in darkness in the school cafeteria, first climbed onto tables and then knocked out ceiling tiles in order to lift children into the rafters to keep them from drowning.
That didn’t seem much safer. Outside, 130-mph winds ripped mightily at the school’s roof.
Then, nature took mercy on the town of McClellanville. The winds and tide subsided. No one had died. Evacuees filed out to discover the wall of water had tossed their cars around like Hot Wheels.
It was — and still is — a terrifying story. The State today led with an account of all that, featuring a terrifying quote headline.
Find the story here by the State‘s Jason Ryan. Find video and photo galleries here.
Average daily circulation for the State is 70,980.
My favorite front page of the day, however, is this one from the tiny Item of Sumter, circulation 13,644.
Reversing the entire front page out of black is a risky thing to do, but not what the folks at the item did:
- They bumped up the point size of their body copy so it’d be more readable on a black background.
- They used sans-serif type — rather than the usual serif — because serifs can get lost when reversed out.
- They kept the rest of their design very clean and let the black background do the shouting.
There’s one more thing you can do with a page like this: You can make sure the black isn’t a four-color black. Use a mix like, say, 15 cyan and 100 black — with no magenta or yellow ink whatsoever. Even if you have a few registration issues, your copy will, most likely, still be readable.
I can’t tell if that’s what Sumter did here. Nor can I tell if print copies looked as good as this PDF does. But I sure like what I’m seeing.
When you go to the Item‘s home page today — Wham! — you’re smacked in the eyeballs with an enormous picture of the paper’s front page from 25 years ago this coming Wednesday…
… which was the first time the paper could publish after the storm. Note the note at the top right:
Special thanks to the Times and Democrat of Orangeburg for typesetting and publishing today’s edition. The Item hopes to resume its normal publication Schedule beginning Monday.
What did my paper at the time — the Herald of Rock Hill — do today? I dunno. Here’s their anniversary story, but sadly, their front page was a no-show in the Newseum today. If any of my friends in the McClatchy design hub in Charlotte would care to send me today’s page, I’d be happy to add it here.
All these front pages are from the Newseum. Of course.
Back to the night of Sept. 21, 1989…
I sat up that evening watching live TV coverage as the eye of Hugo seemingly smashed head-on into Charleston. We expected heavy wind and rain the next morning, but we didn’t expect it to get bad until after daybreak. I set my alarm for an hour or so earlier than normal — so I could drive to work before it got too messy — and went to sleep right around midnight.
Sharon and I woke up around 3 a.m. to this horrible, horrible howling noise. What the hell is that? Turned out to be the wind. I had never been in a hurricane before. I had no idea the racket they make. God, it was awful.
We tried to go back to sleep. Within minutes, the power went out.
My old Herald colleague Deborah Burriss posted on Facebook, five years ago:
That’s a night I’ll never forget.
The copydesk stayed late, waiting for the storm to hit Columbia, which was supposed to get it bad. Then, we got hit with tornado warnings, so we thought it safer to stay at The Herald.
After the power went off all over town, we decided to go home. I lived less than five minutes away, but it was terrifying. Total darkness, stuff flying everywhere. A transformer blew, flaming out as I drove by.
By 4 a.m., so many tree branches and debris from our disintegrating apartment building had bounced off our bedroom windows that we decided to move downstairs.
We lit candles and found a battery-powered transistor radio with which to pull in a local station. We succeeded for a few minutes, but then the announcer said his transmitter was on fire. Then he was knocked off the air.
We were terrified. How much worse can this get?
Around 6 a.m. on the morning of the 22nd, the wind suddenly died down and the sky brightened just a bit. I ventured outside for just a few moments. Trees and power lines were down. Debris was everywhere.
I ducked back inside. Sure enough, moments later, the wind picked up again. I couldn’t believe the eye of the storm had stayed intact this far inland. But sure enough, it had.
Then, suddenly, the storm was gone. The wind stopped blowing, the rain slowed to a misty trickle and then ended. The clouds parted. The sun came out.
But everything was deathly still. No singing birds. No chirping crickets. No sounds of radio or TV. No sounds of traffic on Cherry Road, a block or so away.
The air quickly became hot and muggy. But the blue skies were a stark — and welcome — contrast to what we had suffered through just hours before.
We were lucky: Our townhouse apartment was surrounded by units on either side that protected us from the worst of the wind.
But we could see what had caused some of the racket overnight: Large chunks of our roof were gone with the wind.
With school canceled, Sharon straightened up the place while I dashed in to work.
All down Cherry Road, I saw things like this:
That was one of my favorite Hugo photos, snapped by my colleagues at the Herald.
Here was the view out on Cherry Road, near our apartment.
That’s a Wendy’s sign, denuded and leaning to the left.
And where had that fickle Wendy gotten off to? She was out messing around with a neighborhood kid:
We were lucky. We got power back at our apartment the very next day. The secret to having your power restored quickly: Live directly behind a Wal-Mart. Works every time.
Power was out for weeks, though, for many residents. We invited folks we worked with to come over and take hot showers.
Not together. However, now that you mention it, that’s not a bad idea, either.
Hugo struck in the wee hours of a Friday morning. That afternoon, our paper attempted to put out our Saturday and Sunday editions with power from a generator trucked in from Raleigh.
I built a nice photo page for our Sunday Perspective front. As soon as the page went to plate, however, I was told we’d be producing a 12-page special section for Sunday’s paper.
A number of us came in Saturday. I came up with a design format, which we handed off to editors. We divvied up the section into geographical regions and turned everyone loose. Here was the cover I designed, with art by photo chief Andy Burriss:
I don’t know if you can read the lede on that cover story. It’s uncredited, but I’d bet you it was written by Terry Plumb, our editor. It sounds like him:
South Carolina does not suffer her villains easily, an she will rank Hurricane Hugo up there with General Sherman, carpetbaggers and the boll weevil.
Pages two and three focused on the city of Rock Hill (click any of these for a larger view).
Pages four and five looked at the rural areas of our coverage area, York and Chester counties.
Pages six and seven focused on whatever cleanup and recovery photos we could get Friday and Saturday.
Pages eight and nine looked at Charleston and the devastated lowcountry.
Page 10 was a state-wide roundup. Page 11 focused on the Caribbean, where Hugo had beaten up the islands pretty badly before it had even gotten to us.
Page 12 — the back page — was mine. However, I found myself handicapped by the loss of my Mac. When power finally came back on Friday night, the surge fried my power supply. I was forced to cobble together pieces from whatever I could find on floppy drives, using one of our ad production Macs.
In the lower left is a hasty recreation of a hard copy I had saved of an Associated Press graphic by Dean Caple and Karl Gude.
Later, I did manage to put together some nicer pieces. I showed you one earlier of Hugo’s trek across the state. This one shows the mechanical forces a hurricane uses to rip apart your house.
I had made the switch from MacDraw to Freehand just five months before. As you can see, I leaned on gradient blends just a bit too much in those days.
Our carriers did a really swell job getting papers out in the aftermath of Hugo. In a gallery of reader-submitted photos on the Herald on the 20th anniversary five years ago, I found this picture of former carrier Betty Johnson, whose work that day earned her a T-shirt. She says she wears the shirt once a year, to commemorate Hurricane Hugo.
Yep: I designed that T-shirt.
While I was digging around in my Hugo files, I also found the special section inserted the Sunday after the storm by our competitors up the road, the Charlotte Observer.
The Observer’s special section contained three or four good-sized graphics — a lot more than I was able to provide for the Herald.
The reasons for that: a) The Observer employed five news artists. I was a one-man staff at the time. And b) Presumably, the Observer didn’t lose its news art Macs to an electrical glitch.
The Observer graphics were drawn by Mike Homan and Mike Fisher. Mike the former now designs the paper’s page one at the McClatchy hub there. Mike the latter spent a few years with KRT’s News in Motion and is now with the San Antonio Express News.
The Charleston paper — actually, there were twin papers at the time; the morning News & Courier and the evening Evening Post — one-upped us all by rushing to press this magazine-format reprint edition containing stories and photos from the week’s papers:
The design looks a little dated now, but then again, it is dated. This printed 25 years ago.
Hugo set off a series of events that happened very quickly for me that winter.
- Just a couple of weeks after Hugo, I visited England for my first-ever international speaking engagement.
- That winter, the Daniels family of Raleigh sold the Herald and its sister papers in Beaufort and Hilton Head to McClatchy company of Sacramento, Calif.
- McClatchy immediately ordered up a redesign of the Herald, which I executed. It was the second daily redesign of my career. I was only 27 years old.
- Then, McClatchy authorized us to hire a second artist. We selected Michael Dabrowa of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Michael would later spend eight years as graphics editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Back to Hugo, though: As chance would have it, Sharon and I had spent a long Labor Day weekend in Charleston with her parents, just three weeks before the city was was nearly wiped off the map.
Charleston, as always, had been gorgeous:
After the redesign, Sharon and I took time off during her spring break to visit my dad, who had just moved to Moncks Corner, north of Charleston. We couldn’t resist driving back into town to see what the place looked like, six months after our last visit.
And, in fact, the tourist-conscious downtown area looked pretty good. Most buildings were already repaired. A few still had scaffolding up, like this place just off the famed battery, along the waterfront.
Here are four houses along the famed Rainbow Row. Three had been repaired; fixes to the fourth were underway.
The outlying areas to the north and east of town, however, still showed heavy scars from Hugo. Rich houses along the beachfront on Sullivan’s Island — actual ground-zero the night of Sept. 21 — sat empty, some no longer attached to their foundations.
Apartments and condos, no longer structurally sound, had been abandoned in place, awaiting demolition crews.
Just a few months before, this area had been lively with activity. What a depressing sight this was.
And along the beach itself, officials had erected fences to collect wind-driven sand, in hopes of accumulating the protective sand dunes lost to the storm surge.
We found all sorts of interesting debris still washing up along the beach, six months after the storm.
A few miles up the coast, though, was where the truly stunning visuals were.
I wrote a few minutes ago about the most terrifying story that came out of Hugo: What happened in the town of McClellanville. I wanted to see the town for myself. We couldn’t find the school. Perhaps it had been demolished.
We did, however, find fishing boats in the strangest places.
Namely, everywhere except the water.
The final item in my collection of Hugo memorabilia is this board game, rushed out in time for Christmas that year:
The orange cards, by the way, are “experience.” The blue cards are “adjustor” and represent comical dealings with insurance companies.
That’s who everyone cursed in South Carolina after Hugo, by the way. Insurance companies, as opposed to FEMA.
I took those pictures five years ago. I’m not even sure this little gem survived the massive purge we made for our move to California last year.
Hugo was my first hurricane. We had had storms come through before — in particular, I remember Hurricane David dumping a ton of rain on us in 1979, causing one of my Friday night high-school football games to be postponed until Saturday.
But the howl of wind moving in excess of 75 mph, I had never heard before that night.
Since then, though, we have been through a series of hurricanes and tropical storms. Fran, which smacked us so hard in Raleigh in 1996 that we didn’t get power back for nine days. Emily. Bertha. Allison. Eduardo. Leslie. Ernesto. Bonnie. Charlie. Gaston. Ophelia. Irene, the only storm for which we evacuated our home in Virginia Beach. Probably a few more I can’t recall right now.
Hurricanes are deadly. They’re loud and terrifying — for years, our daughter, Elizabeth, referred to Fran as the night we had “big thunder,” because that’s what it sounded like to her: Big thunder that wouldn’t stop.
Twenty five years later, Hugo still gives me a shiver. I don’t want to go through that again anytime soon.