Saturday, June 04, 2005

Hurricane Hugo Story for pending hurricane season

I saw where the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was asking for readers' experiences in hurricanes.

So I wrote the following text regarding our experiences with Hurricane Hugo.

Back in 1989, my family and I survived Hurricane Hugo in the Pee Dee area of South Carolina. Although the older members of the family had experienced a hurricane in the 1940s, none of us who were young adults had ever experienced a hurricane before. Virtually no one I knew under the age of 30 took the hurricane threat seriously.

The event started off with everyone watching the news on where it would land. We were especially concerned since my then-fiancee-now-wife Wyteria was a first-year nursing student at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC. Charleston was appearing on the short list of places where Hugo would reach land.

Two days before Hugo actually came ashore, Wyteria called and said that although the university's administration was making contingency plans with storm shelters for the students, the students were still making jokes about everything. But she said that she saw the huge navy ships leaving and evidently the threat must be more serious after all.

I drove 2 hours from Florence, SC to Charleston and picked Wyteria and her roommate up. All of us had attended and graduated from Francis Marion College (now University) in Florence.

Since the roommate's hometown was Hemingway, SC, we drove back through the Francis Marion National Forest and still did not see too many people making preparations or doing anything different.

The weather had not yet changed anywhere much throughout the pending threat. When we returned to Florence, we proceeded the next day (hours before Hugo hit) to fully stock up on food, videos, and were going to have ourselves a small Hurricane Hugo party since everyone was making too much of a big deal out of nothing that was going to become Hurricane Hugo.

The school districts had also cancelled classes the day before Hugo reached land. Since I was a high school mathematics teacher, it was like a midweek holiday with no papers to grade.

So as we started watching the various movies after sunset, the rain started falling and then quickly scaled upward beyond the dogs-and-cats stage. Then the winds escalated to blowing the rain sideways. Shortly after that, you could not even see anything outside your windows at all.

We knew that this was indeed a powerful storm, but it did not fully gain our respect until the power went out. Then the infamous train sounds started and never stopped. The storm itself never let up on any of the pounding rain for at least 3 hours. The storm simply got worse.

We felt that being near windows was not a good idea and got in the hallway of the apartment. When the entire building started rocking, then the idea of going into the bathroom took hold for better or worse. Hurricane Hugo sounded like a train that had just run over a jumbo jet in the parking lot and was now bearing down on Santa and reindeer on the roof one by one.

The wind and rain never slowed down and eventually it seemed like there was no end in sight. But slowly after what had to be at least 3 to 4 hours of a merciless storm unlike any other experienced, the storm passed or so we thought.

It was in the early hours of September 22, 1989 when the first wave passed over. But then the silence was as deafening as the storm itself. The power still was out and there was nothing to see since the city lights were out as well.

As the wind and rain started to pick up again, we knew that we had experienced the front end of the hurricane and now the eye of the storm was passing over and by as well.

The back end of Hugo was just as bad as the front end. Everything just happened in duplicate.

The aftermath of Hurricane Hugo proceeded to be almost as bad as the storm itself.

The next morning's daylight brought the view of fallen limbs and trees everywhere. The humidity had been totally sucked out of the air and the temperature climbed throughout the day.

Now most of the food bought the day before was in a refrigerator that was without power for several hours. On top of that, we did not have a manual can opener or any other means to cook anything since the stove and microwave oven could not work either.

There was a fast run on ice everywhere within several counties. We did not travel to our smaller hometowns since they were in the same situation and everyone wanted to save gas since most gas station pumps were not working either.

Only convenience stores seemed to have ice until you got there and no major grocery stores opened for business for at least a week. There were rumors and stories of price gouging, but there was no media for anyone to get any news since everyone had no power for several days.

Quickly FEMA and other agencies moved in and long lines started for hurricane relief. I stood in a line for foodstamps as well only to be told "Don't perjure yourself" since the worker knew that I was a teacher and supposedly I had money and food. But my ignorance of hurricane and federal-disaster areas put me in the same plight as everyone else since my money was spent on food that went bad quickly or could not be opened or prepared as well as for VHS videos that could not be watched.

By the time Wyteria's classes resumed in Charleston, we drove back through areas that took a harder hit than we did. As we drove south towards Charleston, we saw entire forests of trees laid down like worshipers bowing to pray. Trailer homes were ripped open like an Christmas gift-wrapped toyboxes. You would think bombs had been dropped with precision while other nearby buildings were left fully intact.

Charleston was a full-blown nonmilitary recipient of nature's shock and awe. There were people and places near Charleston that had not recovered since Wyteria's graduation in 1991. There were people whose lives were much better since federal aid gave them what their families did not have since the prime years of agriculture and sharecropping had passed by.

Months later while driving throughout the state, we witnessed the full path and impact of Hurricane Hugo that had traveled the same route of I-26 in leaving Charleston and then it took I-77 towards Charlotte, NC.

Road signs built with higher than normal steel were snapped and/or twisted onto themselves.

Every region needs an emergency evacuation plan and highways.

Whenever we see news reports of storms of any significant nature now, we know what they are going through and what we will do if we ever face the similar conditions again.

1. Buy a manual can opener and get the grill ready with plenty of charcoal and matches. Do not buy any perishable food or anything requiring a stove or microwave oven.

2. Fill up your vehicle's tank with gasoline and buy as much ice that you have coolers for. Do this regardless of the time of year you are in.

3. Buy batteries for any radios, flashlights, and music players for post-storm days that you will not have power. Buy candles and candle holders also.

4. Now that we have kids, we would know to stock up on bottled water and nonscented baby wipes for everyone since the water may not be consumable afterwards. Get ready for nonelectronic entertainment days as well.

5. Buy any battery-operated personal fans also although it may be futile after a certain point. Then save the fans for the moments when you are getting on each other's last nerve.

6. Use daylight hours like you never have before and get as much rest and sleep when the sun goes down.

7. Have a plan in place to communicate with other family and friends in case the phone system is not working and since no one is going to remember to check e-mail if the power is out in their homes.

8. No one thinks to take photographs other than for insurance purposes. So have your digital cameras and camcorders and batteries ready to record the aftermath for your descendents and give them a game plan for dealing with such traumatic events.

Hurricanes and other natural disasters quickly reduce lifestyles to the basic necessities. Only through a sense of faith, hope, and community, does a household and region ever have a chance to survive and thrive again.

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