By the time you read this, Hurricane Hanna will be history, but as I write, it is still very present and alarming. In fact, my editors asked all City Paper columnists to get their copy in a couple of days early this week, in case the lights go out on Morrison Drive or they decide to run for high ground.
That’s a deal with the devil we all make when we move to the coast. The price we pay for living in this beautiful old city is the occasional threat of having our lives seriously disrupted.
I was reporting for The State newspaper in Columbia, in September 1989, when Hurricane Hugo thundered ashore just south of McClellanville and became an instant legend. Hugo brought 135 mph winds and a 12-foot tidal surge. It carried hurricane-force winds as far inland as York County and did an estimated $10 billion in damage. Among its victims were The Evening Post and The News and Courier (predecessors of today’s Post and Courier). With power knocked out for miles around, the papers could not print in their Columbus Street plant, so we printed the daily editions on The State presses for nearly two weeks and trucked them down to the Holy City each day.
The State sent a team of reporters to cover the immediate aftermath and recovery efforts. (They nearly won a Pulitzer for their work.) I was not on that team, but I was sent to report on Hugo’s victims in rural Berkeley and Clarendon counties, where the national and even the local media hardly bothered to look. What I discovered was horrific: whole forests flattened as if by a nuclear blast, little farming communities shattered, mobile homes shredded and scattered over acres of sodden fields, wretched little farm houses with sides or roofs torn away.
Of course, most of the victims in these remote and rural communities were black. With the eyes of the world — and of the relief effort — focused on Charleston, Mt. Pleasant, Sullivan’s Island, and Isle of Palms, there was little these unfortunate people could do but fend for themselves and hope the relief trucks would finally arrive. Yet they were remarkably resilient — or maybe stoic. Hurricane Hugo was just another bad day in a lifetime of poverty, hard work, and disappointment. Perhaps, when you have so little to lose, losing it all doesn’t hurt so much. But in the blighted, Third World conditions of Berkeley and Clarendon counties, “losing it all” didn’t mean the same thing it did on Sullivan’s Island or Isle of Palms. In these rural communities, insurance adjusters did not swarm in with their checkbooks to make things right. These people had to rebuild their homes and their lives largely by their own resources.
What happened in New Orleans three years ago was not unprecedented. Poor people will always be the least and the last to receive the benefits of being Americans.
For all our technological sophistication, there are things we will never master. Hurricanes are one of them. Early sailors to the New World soon discovered that the Caribbean and regions north were stalked by a monster, which the natives called “harakan,” or great wind.
There were major storms in Charleston in 1700 and 1713. On Sept. 15, 1752, the eye of a hurricane crossed the coast at Charleston Harbor on an incoming tide. The huge surge tossed all but one of the ships in the harbor onto the streets and destroyed all of the wharves and many of the houses of the city. In August 1885, a Category 3 storm struck Charleston, damaging or destroying 90 percent of the homes and killing 21. A series of eight hurricanes hit the coast between 1893 and 1911, destroying what was left of South Carolina’s once fabulous rice culture. Two of those storms struck in 1893. The June storm, which came to be known as the Great Storm, made landfall on Edisto Island, destroying the town of Eddingsville and killing an estimated 3,000 people between Savannah and Charleston. The second storm struck north of Georgetown in October, drowning many more.
A handful of major storms came to S.C. in the 20th century, including the hurricane of 1928, which killed 1,800 people in Florida, before arriving here. In October 1954, Hurricane Hazel became the first named storm to hit the state, brushing by the Grand Strand with 106 mph winds and a 17-foot tidal surge. Hundreds of cottages were swept away.
Whatever becomes of Hanna, there will surely be other storms in our future. Ultimately, of course, they do not test our technology so much as our humanity, for they remind us in most humbling terms of how vulnerable we are and how much we depend on each other.