Twenty-six years ago today, the second worst storm ever to make landfall on the Atlantic coast of the USA hit my town.
I was 11 years old, and lived in Charleston, SC with my family. The afternoon of September 21, we lined up in Mrs. Redmond’s homeroom to be dismissed. I remember smugly remarking to a classmate, “If that hurricane comes anywhere near here, we won’t have school tomorrow!”
I was more right than I knew. The next day, not only was there no school, there was no water, no electricity, no emergency services, and no passable roads. In one night, Hurricane Hugo had killed over a dozen South Carolinians, left 60,000 people homeless, and caused some $6.5 billion in damage.
My parents chose not to evacuate, because my dad was concerned about the pets and the potential for burglary. So, after helping to put tape on the windows, I went to bed as usual, expecting something like a typical thunderstorm. Around midnight, my parents woke me up, and told me we had to go downstairs because the house was shaking from the wind. Electricity was already out, so we listened to the local news on the radio. The DA made an announcement that homeowners who shot looters would not be prosecuted. A lot of areas were being heavily flooded, and very violent tornadoes were forming inside the storm. People in mobile homes and RVs were in serious trouble, and it was unclear whether or not some of the barrier island communities were completely underwater.
About an hour later, windows started breaking in our house, and my dad had to try to put plastic over the broken frames to keep the torrential rain from pouring into the bedrooms. I learned then that the tape on the windows wasn’t to keep them from breaking, it was to keep the shattered pieces from scattering.
When the eye of the storm passed over us, it became eerily silent. My parents and I went outside to check the exterior. It was pitch black outside, because all the street lights were out. Part of the metal roof cap had blown off and was lying in the driveway. My dad pulled it around the corner so that it wouldn’t blow back towards the house. We went inside, and waited out the rest of the storm. Around 3 a.m., we all feel asleep.
I was the first one up, and immediately went outside to see what had happened.
A lot of memories fade after a quarter-century, but I will never forget walking out onto my parents’ porch into the overwhelming silence of that morning-after. We lived downtown, in the most densely-populated part of the city. Normally, the air was full of the sounds of life. But that morning, there was nothing. No traffic noise, no birds chirping, no people talking. The city was silent.
Visually, the scene was not so much one of devastation as desolation. There was clearly damage – a lot of broken roofs and debris – but things didn’t look ruined so much as they looked empty. Every tree had been stripped bare of leaves. The ivy that had grown in profusion on every wall was gone. I later learned that crop damages were over $2 billion.
My family was lucky. We had a few broken windows, but the giant live oak tree that blew down in our yard only crushed a corner of the roof, rather than destroying our home. Many others were worse off. Even though Hugo had made landfall at low tide, the flooding had been devastating to anyone living near water. Boats had been picked up out of the harbor by tornadoes, and dropped like bombs into the surrounding neighborhoods.
I would not describe the experience as personally traumatic – I did not directly experience any significant hardship in the wake of the storm – but it was certainly eye-opening. Hugo taught me how quickly everything we rely on can go away, and it is a lesson I have never forgotten. When the lights go out, and stay out, you quickly gain a very different perspective on modern life.
One of the well-known local stories that emerged after the hurricane was of then-police chief Reuben Greenberg. A little background: Chief Greenberg was both black and Jewish, and universally respected and beloved by the primarily white, Christian residents of Charleston. After the storm, he issued the following order regarding looters: “Don’t arrest anybody. Beat ’em. We have nowhere to put them.”
Even with effective local leadership (unlike, say, post-Katrina New Orleans), the police couldn’t be everywhere. It was crystal clear to everybody left in the city that, really, we were on our own. If you didn’t have a way to protect your home, you were just hoping that nobody bothered you. If you didn’t have any cash, you couldn’t buy food. If you didn’t have any bottled water, you were in serious trouble. All the “paranoid survivalist stuff” suddenly made a LOT more sense than just trusting in the system to always be there to take care of you.
In the past two and half decades, our vulnerability as a society has only deepened. An entire generation has grown up with smartphones and computers. Many of them have never even used a hand-held radio, let alone considered why they might need to have one. After Hugo, local grocery store managers set up tables on the street outside their damaged buildings and sold canned food and water using cashboxes and calculators. Now, they aren’t allowed to do that. If the computers don’t work, nobody can buy anything, even with cash (which most people don’t keep on hand anyway). Moreover, most grocery stores are stocked “just in time,” meaning they have minimal supplies in storage, so there probably wouldn’t be anything to buy anyway.
Interestingly, after Hugo, about the only thing that worked was the telephone. As in, landline. A lot of the cables were buried, so they were insulated from the storm. At least people could call for help, and let relatives know that they were okay. Today, if the cell towers are damaged, we’re incommunicado. So much of our daily lives depends on an aging and delicate electrical grid that it really makes no sense NOT to be prepared for a major disruption.
I like the term, “disruption,” by the way. Emergencies, by definition, are brief in duration. So, “emergency preparedness” means following the Ready.gov guidelines of three days-worth of basic supplies. The assumption is that the emergency will end, and everything will go back to normal. A disruption, on the other hand, can be a minute, an hour, a week, or it can be permanent. And, as I learned at the age of 11, it can happen overnight.
I have no problem with technology. I use a computer and smartphone just like everybody else. But I don’t rely on it, and I certainly don’t spend more money on it than I absolutely have to. It’s much more important to me to have the means to protect, transport and sustain my family in the event of a disruption.
Hugo taught me how fragile the things we rely on really are. The system seems strong, but nature is a whole lot stronger. A hurricane, an earthquake, a fire: it doesn’t take much to knock the wheels off the cart, leaving you stranded. Knowing that, we all have two options: pretend nothing will ever happen; or take precautions for when it will.