Heart of a Southern Woman

A snapshot of life one blog post at a time.

PTSD? Waiting for Hurricane Arthur to Hit Us, Brings up Memories of Family Tragedy of 1989 and Hurricane Hugo-52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks #27



Tonight, July 3, 2014, while part of my family is on a beach on the North Carolina coast with Hurricane Arthur approaching, I am sitting here praying for their safety as I recall the tragic aftermath  of Hurricane Hugo for our own family.  The Category 5 hurricane Hugo hit Sept 21-22 during the night. The huge storm surge lifted 3 to 4 blocks of houses right off their foundations, squashed them together like a stack of pancakes, and shoved them all back from the ocean about a quarter to a half mile! I had never seen anything like it, until I went down three  months after the storm and saw the destruction with my own eyes! You see, my husband’s family lived there, just  a few blocks off the beach in Garden City, SC., just south of Myrtle Beach, and just north of Charleston.

Interview with Charleston Mayor Joe Riley

Joe Riley, the Mayor of Charleston, shared his memories of Hugo along with some lessons that were learned from the storm. He also has some good reminders about being prepared for the next storm! Check out the full interview here.


Hurricane Hugo was a Cape Verde hurricane that became a Category 5 (on the Saffir-Simpson Scale) storm in the Atlantic, then raked the northeast Caribbean as a Category 4 storm before turning northwest between an upper-level high pressure system to the north and upper-level low pressure system to the south. Hugo made landfall just north of Charleston, South Carolina at Sullivan’s Island around midnight September 22, 1989 as a Category 4 storm with estimated maximum sustained winds of 135-140 mph and a minimum central pressure of 934 mb (27.58 inches of Hg). Hugo produced tremendous wind and storm surge damage along the coast and even produced hurricane force wind gusts all the way into western North Carolina. In fact, Hugo produced the highest storm tide heights ever recorded along the U.S. East Coast.

Hurricane Hugo track - credit: NOAA's National Hurricane Center Upper-level weather pattern during Hugo - image courtesy of Dr. Jon Nese at Penn State University
Hurricane Hugo’s Track Upper-level Air Patterns
(credit: NOAA’s National Hurricane Center) (credit: Jon Nese at Penn State University)

At the time, Hurricane Hugo was the strongest storm to strike the United States in the previous 20-year period. The hurricane was also the nation’s costliest in terms of monetary losses with damage estimates standing at $7 billion. It is estimated that there were 49 deaths directly related to the storm, 26 of which occurred in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.




My husband Max’s  sister Brenda, her husband Curt, and their three daughters had moved to the beach from western NC sometime in the seventies. Max and I married in 1971, and his Dad, Henry, who  had recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, quickly became wheelchair bound. Within three years, his Mom, Helen, had a brain aneurysm to leak,which brain surgery was able to repair, rare in the 1970’s.  Brenda had a lovely two-story home about four blocks off the beach, and very close by was a mobile home retirement park, very popular in South Carolina. It provided an apartment-like living facility , very convenient to stores and their family. At first it seemed stress free and ideal. Fast forward 10 to 14 years, and they had grown older and less healthy. then Hugo threatened. They were forced to evacuate, and while Brenda and her family stayed not far inland with friends, Henry and Helen at first headed to refuge with Henry’s sister and her husband near Charlotte, NC. We soon learned that the storm was headed that way, and begged them to come instead to our house in Raleigh, NC. At that time we were a family of four, with daughters ages 7 and 15, living in a cozy 1250 sq. ft house! We gave Max’s parents,  our bedroom and bath, and we took the pull out sofa in the study. It was obvious that the stress had taken a toll on both of Max’s parent’s health. His Dad seemed the worst, and indeed, he ended up in the hospital  having bypass surgery within three weeks!  His Mom was so busy taking care of her husband  and worrying about  things back home and all her family, that her diabetes got out of control as well as her problematic blood pressure. She steadfastly refused to see a doctor however, preferring to wait until she went “home”  to SC to see her own. We tried to prepare her for what she might see when she returned. Brenda’s home was still standing, but it had flooded severely. You could see the high water marks just below the ceiling on their first floor! While they had moved some antiques and family heirlooms upstairs, they lost most of what was downstairs and in their shop out back, including a mahogany executive desk handmade by my husband Max while at NC State! It had been ruined in the storm. Amazingly, Max’s parents mobile home was intact, but other homes had been swept into it, and refrigerators, cars, and boats were scattered everywhere! They never found some of their possessions, whether swept away in the storm or looted, we will never know. This was the scene we witnessed when at last we had the chance to take Max’s parents home, in early December, 1989, just before Max’s Mothers’s 70th birthday! After our brief visit, Henry and Helen  stayed with Brenda and Curt while we returned home . Within a week,  Max’s mother had a stroke and died! What a tragedy! There is no doubt in my mind that her death is one not counted as a death from Hurricane Hugo, but it was, nonetheless. The domino effect of the storm, evacuation, her husband’s surgery, and the devastation she witnessed upon returning aligned with her own poor health and just took her away. All of us were left with guilty feelings of course–if only we had kept her in Raleigh, if only we had insisted she see a doctor, if only we hadn’t taken her back to SC until Spring when things would have been cleaned up a bit more, if only, if only ,if only! So tonight, I sit and wait, wait until morning when I will have news that my family on the beach is all just fine.    

Author: Helen Holshouser

Old enough to enjoy life, I am a Red Hatter, grandmother, gardener, and amateur genealogist. I am a retired clinical psychologist, master's level, who is disabled with heart disease, but having fun with family and friends. Married over 40 years, I have two grown daughters and three grandchildren. I have learned that grandchildren provide a joy one never knew existed---writing feeds my soul, gardening is therapy, and genealogy research makes me feel like a detective!

6 thoughts on “PTSD? Waiting for Hurricane Arthur to Hit Us, Brings up Memories of Family Tragedy of 1989 and Hurricane Hugo-52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks #27

  1. Hello Helen

    Thanks for your very interesting article.

    It is under very strange circumstances that I have ended up here. You might have to bear with me while I explain a little.

    Growing up I would have recurring dreams about tidal waves/wrecks of a house on a beach. The house was 2 storey and painted a yellow colour – a very distinct style.

    I never thought much of my dreams until recently – I was watching a documentary and something triggered me into remembering feelings of worry/apprehension… and bad weather!
    With these feelings I remembered the dream were I was stood on the beach.. going through the wreck of a house. I remember seeing all kinds of objects on the beach!!

    I curiously googled the biggest weather event before I was born on October 7th 1989. I instantly found Hurricane Hugo.. I went on to research the types of houses that were destroyed in the storm. It interestingly led me to South Carolina! I looked at the style of houses and was gobsmacked at similarities to my dreams.

    I didn’t get very far with my research because I couldn’t get any information about the people whos lives had been impacted because of it. I left it for a while but I did ask my higher self for guidance for more information.

    Today my friend popped around for a cup of tea – when she left and as I was clearing up, I found a raffle ticket. Just one.. oddly placed on the side. I had this gut feeling that I knew it was a clue. I phoned my friend and she told me it was rubbish from a couple of days ago and that I could get rid of it. I knew I had to google the number on the ticket… I know this is stange.. but I had a feeling I knew what I was going to see.

    919. I typed in into google and there it was “919.. area code for North Carolina” A few clicks later and I am on your article. Then I thought back to my day at work. I am a Travel Agent and nearly every customer I had today mentioned Cape Verde and I even booked a whole family there!
    Hugo was a storm from Cape Verde!

    Now I know these are all coincidences… but I guess it depends what your beliefs are about coincidences.. and mine are that there is more to them that meets the eye.

    I wonder if you have any more information for me.. do you remember any yellow houses?

    I would love to hear from you,




  2. Hi Jenny! What an incredible story! And yes, I’m a believer in things beyond our knowing. It sounds like you have been on quite a journey! I actually don’t know much about the uI have lots of family who still live there, and surely one of them would know something about the houseyou describe! I will ask my sister in law if she remembers a two story , yellow house! This is very interesting and I would love to “talk” with you more! Helen


  3. Pingback: Max Alexander Holshouser, Family Man and Extraordinary Craftsman–52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks, #35 | Heart of a Southern Woman

  4. Awh thanks Helen! Yeah it keeps coming back to me and I just can’t leave it! I might be totally fishing around in the wrong hole – but I’m fishing nonetheless !

    I will have to try and get you a picture of a house similar!

    Thanks again for your articles, they are great!!


  5. Helen,

    I am just discovering your great blog, and I would like to share how I also suffered a similar tragedy with Hurricane Hugo.

    My grandfather, in his mid-nineties, was at his home on Maureen Drive in Charlotte, just released from the hospital and halfway through his recovery from pneumonia. The doctors at the hospital could do no more to calm his anger and delusions of being held hostage by nurses with ulterior motives; they felt he would heal more quickly and successfully if he could just calm down and rest in what he felt was a “safe” place, sleeping more peacefully in his own bed at home. Gettys Dixon Hoyle was making good progress once back there, sitting up in the living room, eating the nourishing vegetables he and my grandmother had canned the past summer, watching the birds flock to the feeder my visiting mother was quick to fill with seed, before winding the mantel clock that precisely struck the hour for watching church services, favorite old TV programs, the local news. Television stations soon focused on the storm that was coming toward our Carolina coast, and how that might be “the next Hazel.” When the winds finally roared in, then northwestward across Charlotte, the lights went out in a very big city. Its large urban population reeled in the aftermath, limping through the weeks of clean-up that followed.

    My visiting mom called me to describe my grandparents’ situation in their suburban neighborhood: no electricity to their cozy three-bedroom brick ranch, and no idea when it might return. My grandfather needed his favorite foods warmed, and ice to keep milk and pudding cold. My aunt might be coming to help. I left my home in Wilmington (where Hugo had been originally forecast to make a direct hit before veering south!) the first weekend after the storm. My SUV was fully loaded, with my plan to transfer all my own storm supplies westward, and to bring much-needed ice in coolers to my grandparents.

    As I approached the Queen City, I saw increasing signs of nature’s force. Trees and limbs scattered, and fences askew. Along rural roads, the damage seems more minimal, fallen trees are staggered across large fields, or masked in stands of the pines who somehow survived. Pulling off the highway and entering town, I was utterly shocked by the incredible damages sustained, and so far inland! How odd, that this exceeded any damage I had seen on our North Carolina coast, in this recent storm or others.

    I became bound into waves of cars, as the roads widened onto triple-lane boulevards, with all drivers cautiously negotiating intersections that had no working traffic lights, following instinctual rules of the road never known before. Cars moved shoulder to shoulder, like strange mechanical herds of buffalo, taking turns at intersections to press forward into that gaping space where opposing forces nervously met and crossed. One brave driver would creep forward, pushing out into the cross-current, to lead his tribe, a stampede en mass, for what felt like Dali-esque and oblong-stretched seconds. Straggler drivers who were still crossing, rushed to catch up to the pack, as a new brave leader of the next traffic tribe found the courage to press forward, unlocking a new flow.

    In this manner, I passed block upon city block of darkened businesses, drive-throughs, stores and offices with no lights visible on the signs or inside; no power. Sometimes it seemed like one side of the street might be waking up with a few lights on, but the opposite side remained lifeless. Turning into a neighborhood, one after another, I saw driveways that led, apparently, to nothing but piles of downed trees—thick trunks with feathery branches lay at precarious angles, with root balls ripped out of the nurturing ground, tipped in that upwards direction where its upper branches could no longer strive to reach. So many splintered arms and dying fingers were draped across—completely obscuring—various homes, with cars still parked and stranded somewhere underneath. Overhead lines were pulled and stretched and snapped from poles, like the strings of Paganini’s violin after a particularly violent concerto.

    My grandfather had no trees fall on his house, but the lines were down on his street, and the destruction throughout his area near Eastland meant there would be no power for days; in the end, it was two weeks. It might as well have been two months for him.

    I made multiple runs, coolers stuffed, to deliver supplies and help out. At each successive visit I witnessed my grandfather “Papa” slowly withdrawing from life. At first, he was sitting in his favorite chair, staring at the newspaper I had just brought him, emblazoned with Hugo headlines, but I realized he was not really reading. I would fill a glass, and put it in his hand, but he sipped slowly without much enthusiasm. Sometimes he stared at the darkened TV, as if the regular shows might just suddenly return. Picking at his food, clearly all room-temperature, it was clearly less than appealing.

    Then, Papa did not feel well enough to sit up in the den. He began refusing the soup I ran out to warm up for him. At first he had accepted offerings, small tubs of food rushed back to him after I waited in line behind other hungry neighbors. We were each so grateful to use that microwave, one after the other, at the closest gas station that was lucky enough to have power restored. But rushing back to now, with precious and warmed liquid cargo became pointless. And then, he just stayed in his bed with his eyes closed, and then his breathing changed. And like just like that, my Papa was dying. The nurse told us not to worry, that it would be peaceful…

    There is more, of course, confessions of love by the bedside, family farewells, a long life letting go.

    You brought this back for me, Helen, and to this day I share your grief, complete with the what-ifs, the frustrations over the indiscriminate cruelty of that storm. It changed me fundamentally, that last weekend spent with my Papa, and especially the day that they came to take my grandfather away. The day he left his cozy, safe place. That day I witnessed my grandmother’s raw, yet gentle, grief so mixed with gratitude for the years they had shared together. I knew suddenly that I actually did want to grow a family of my own, after all. I felt finally ready to connect with someone else who was also ready to take a life journey, to build a new family together—full of traditions and frustrations, and jest and joy, in sickness and in health—until death do us part. It did not take as long to find my partner as it did to realize our own family with two beautiful children just as free-spirited as their parents. I am forever grateful to my grandparents for that bittersweet gift.

    And so here I sit, with my husband oftentimes working thousands if miles away, but returning to sit here in his favorite chair, and our own two children scattering on the wind in different directions, each so seriously focused on school and careers. Like I once was, they seem resolute in their still-solitary pursuits.

    Done with my wandering, at least so it seems, I sit writing this, in my own safe place, and slowly weaving my own part of a family tapestry; each progressive section almost magically appears, so vibrant and colorful, and not yet fraying. The loom clicks back and forth, marking the minutes, the hours and the days, across busy months and eventful years. Our story grows, and new patterns emerge. And so it will inevitably continue onwards until, with another one of life’s many big and random storms—there is a pulling on heartstrings, a tempest taking its toll—that changes the pattern progression within this, our unique and sacred family tapestry.

    Sent from my iPhone


  6. Hi Terry, wow! This needs to be your own blog post, beginnings of a book, or a movie! How interesting, sad but moving! Your grandparents were blessed to have you in their corner. Isn’t it amazing that both of us experienced such heart wrenching deaths in our families, due to Hurricane Hugo, but not counted in the official count of casualties! It has opened my eyes to the realization of all the devastation we do not hear of in these types of events! Thanks so very much for sharing! Helen


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