This weekend’s 25th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo offers South Carolina residents the chance to remember the devastation wrought by their worst storm in the past century – and to be ready in case another such tempest comes.
Hugo made landfall north of Charleston just before midnight on Sept. 21, 1989, with maximum sustained winds of 138 mph. The eye of the Category 4 hurricane was 35 miles wide, with storm surges of 15 to 20 feet above normal. It punched through all of South Carolina and still packed hurricane winds as it passed through Charlotte, North Carolina, and into Virginia. The National Hurricane Center said it killed 49 people.
The storm left 60,000 people in the state homeless, 270,000 temporarily unemployed and 54,000 state residents seeking disaster assistance. Many were without power for two weeks or more.
Emergency Management officials and members of the South Carolina National Guard say they believe they are much better prepared now.
“We have a vastly improved operations plan compared to 25 years ago,” said Kim Stenson, the state’s Emergency Management Director. “All state agencies contribute to it. We know what resources and capabilities they have, and they know their responsibilities and their missions. And we train together regularly.”
Still, it took a while for an overarching plan to be developed. In 1999, evacuations for Hurricane Floyd caused massive gridlock on the roads and highways leading from the coast. Now, highway and safety officials train each year to reverse lanes on those major interstates and highways.
Stenson said an approach that emphasizes taking action several days in advance of the storm is also important.
“We are very pro-active now. It was a very reactive sensibility 25 years ago,” the director said.
The state’s top military officer, Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston, says the state’s 11,000 Army and Air National Guard are much better equipped now, as well.
“We have much more lift capability with aviation assets and better engineer capabilities,” said Livingston, using as an example the Guard’s ability to build pontoon bridges until repairs can be made, as well as its heavy-lift helicopters and heavy transport trucks.
Communications capabilities and computer equipment is more robust, making use of satellite imagery, streaming video, and a separate military communications system, Livingston said.
“We also have integrated our S.C Air National Guard into the response plans. They can set up a mobile air traffic control unit. This is important if a tower is taken out at an airport during a storm,” the two-star general said.
Repeated Guard deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have produced a trained cadre of men and women who are familiar with working under difficult conditions, the general added.
While Hugo changed some attitudes, Livingston said, he’s afraid many might have forgotten his lessons.
“My concern is citizens that have moved in since Hugo and don’t know how devastating this storm was,” the general said.
While the state’s population 25 years ago was around 3.4 million, it has grown to more than 4.6 million by 2010, according to the U.S. Census. A lot of growth has been along the state’s lush and beautiful coastal regions.
“People may not have the experiences with hurricanes that some of us have seen firsthand. Evacuations early on will be critical if we have another storm like Hugo,” Livingston said.
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