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.    

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