One of the first things I remember is watching the evening news coverage of the storm wreaking its havoc on Puerto Rico on Sept. 17, 1989 and getting the sense that my city was in for it. This was quickly confirmed the next day as I drove across the old Cooper River Bridges while running errands and witnessed the ships and submarines of the U.S. Navy making tracks for the Atlantic and the safety of the open seas.
I had already made the decision to ride out the hurricane because I had unwisely come to the conclusion that the four very minor storms I had previously experienced made me an expert on all things tropical cyclone. I was stocked up on survival supplies for what I had estimated to be at least a week of zero electricity.
Let me say now that I learned my lesson.
On Wednesday, I knew for certain the storm was coming, and after finishing up securing my workplace, I went with a friend to move her car from its parking place on The Battery. The car had long been towed away, so we stood at the water’s edge, watching the far-off lightning flashes scream across the heavy purple sky.
I could feel the barometric pressure dropping as we stood there, and the hair on the back of my neck was electrified by a palpable sense of silent unease in the humid wet air. The water in the harbor was abnormally high, but I could barely hear it as it lapped against the seawall. The Ashley River was slow moving with a phosphorus-laden fecundity and salty decay that inundated my every pore.
It was mesmerizing, and I’ll never forget it because it punctuated the end of “before.”
Thursday arrived like any other day except that Charleston was clearing out in wholesale fashion. I rode my bike around the city watching people make last-minute protective measures to their homes and businesses before bugging out.
By noon, the city stood eerily still behind a shield of plywood and sandbags. Those who decided to stay were either at home or swilling booze in the few open bars, glued to the weather report.
I lived in a third-story apartment on King Street, and by two o’clock, the rain began falling in earnest, arriving in waves of increasing ferocity. By late afternoon, the sky had darkened, and the wind whipped up, pushing loose trash down the street and forcing pigeons to stand as close as possible against the juncture of the sidewalks and buildings. There were hundreds of them, up and down the street, jockeying for position with the policemen walking patrols along the concrete.
When evening came and I had tired of innumerable games of spades, I donned my rain coat and went outside to watch first-hand what the national newscasts were beaming out to the rest of the country. I was constantly running up and down the stairs to take phone calls from anxious friends who did not live on the coast. It was almost a relief when the telephone went dead around 6:30.
My friends and I were drinking beer and watching the unprotected storefront windows shatter onto King Street as the pressure rapidly dropped and the storm became what the civic leadership had predicted. A window from the wig store across the street blew out, and the ensuing vacuum effect sent dozens of toupees, church-lady hairdos, and shards of glass toward us. It made for some momentary entertainment.
A vagrant tried to shake us down for some cash by saying he was an undercover policeman and had called the paddy wagon. For a generous gratuity, he would call off the impending constabulary. I gave him a cigarette and told him to hit the road.
We watched huge pieces of debris fly through the air, and I saw the crumpled remains of a copper roof shoot up Beaufain Street faster than any car would. Glass, stones, brick, slate shingles, roofing materials, porch banisters, and the like burst through the air as if shot from a cannon. The rain hurt as it pelted us.
Then things turned serious.
A friend came running down the stairs and notified me that there was water coming through my ceiling. I had expected this and had planned to drill a hole in the floor for drainage.
As I inspected the leak, a terrible creaking sound erupted and the entire building began to shake. Then water began cascading down the walls of my apartment and the ceiling began to cave in. I realized the roof was giving way and shouted for everyone to get in the stairwell.
After the shaking subsided, we went back in and grabbed the stash of supplies that I had never unpacked because I hadn’t felt like doing so earlier. It was raining sideways in my living room and all I could hear was some people panicking, some people moving things. We were covered in the soggy remains of ceiling tiles and scared to death.
I stupidly continued to look out onto King Street and could hear the roar of the wind and the explosions of transformers blowing up across the city. The funny thing was that I could see things much better once the lights went out, but I could only hear the whistling air as a chunk of something smacked into my side and nearly knocked me senseless.
We sat on the staircase and listened to the howls of the hurricane, wondering when it would stop. I was timing the first half until the arrival of the eye so I could gauge Part Two. I thought I was so smart.
The eye came suddenly, and we ran into the street and witnessed one of the clearest nights I’d ever seen in Charleston. The air was snapping with static electricity. It was beautiful.
Some of my group ran into M. Dumas & Sons and started looting the clothing store. I couldn’t believe they were that reckless and went in to retrieve my roommate. I got her out and screamed for the rest to get some sense.
I could hear the second half of the storm coming. It sounded like a freight train, lumbering toward us with a horrible noisy velocity.
I was talking with someone when we heard a scream from around the corner. I knew who it was, but what I heard didn’t sound like her. She was barefoot and had slipped on the broken glass as she exited Dumas, her arms full of stolen clothes. A broken pane of glass was stuck in her ankle.
She threw down the clothes and yanked out the glass as we ran to her and I hollered for her to stop. Blood gushed from the wound. When I reached her, I could see what I thought was her Achilles tendon flapping around like a shoelace.
I don’t know why I knew to do this, but I wrapped the tendon around my index finger and forced her knee to stay unbent. We got her inside, and I tied the tendon around a pencil and secured that to her leg as another girl helped me try to stop the blood flow. Some neighbor boys across the street saw what had happened and came with their van.
We loaded her and her boyfriend in, and they headed over to the College of Charleston where we knew emergency medical help was standing by. We watched the van turn up Beaufain as the second half of the storm came thundering into the city, praying they would make the three-block trip quickly and uneventfully.
We went back to the stairwell to ride out the rest of Hugo. The second half was worse than the first. It was louder, and I could hear the city crumbling about me.
The next thing I knew it was morning. I was awakened at daybreak by the grunts of some of the boys trying to push open the French doors that opened onto King Street. I got behind them, and we pushed with all our might until whatever was blocking the door gave way and the boys splayed out onto the sidewalk.
I came falling behind them and stood up only to come face-to-face with the business end of a shotgun pointed at me and a policeman behind it, screaming at us to go back into my building.
The man’s nerves were so shot that he was spitting as he yelled at us. After he finally became convinced we were no threat, he allowed everyone to leave. I had to stay as I was a resident. He told me the information I would need to deal with the imminently-arriving National Guard.
I watched as my group disappeared around the corner on that clear, blue sky morning. I could see the drapery shears that had been sucked through the window gaskets at the then-Omni Hotel wafting in the light breeze.
I went back to my apartment and promptly fell through the soggy floor, stopped only by my armpits. It took awhile to dislodge myself, and when I got out, I realized my shirt was covered with blood.
I’ll never do it again — it’s not worth it. But here in the “after,” I can say that I know what fear smells like … mildew.
I still tighten my shoulder muscles and cock an eye skyward when the wind blows a little harder. I guess I always will.