Hurricane Hugo is the most intense tropical cyclone to strike the United States Atlantic coast north of Florida on record. Along the United States east coast (north of Florida) - no tropical cyclone has ever recorded a lower pressure, stronger winds, or a higher tidal surge than Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The only hurricane that approaches Hugo's stature in the 20th century along the North or South Carolina coast is Hurricane Hazel of 1954.
For twelve-days in September 1989, Hurricane Hugo captured the attention of millions of people across the Caribbean and the eastern United States. Hugo traveled more than a thousand miles with great intensity. On September 22, five-days after Hugo had left Guadeloupe and Montserrat in shambles, the cyclone was 1,500 miles away - battering the U.S. mainland in South Carolina with 140-mph winds. In terms of size, intensity, duration, and destruction - Hurricane Hugo is one of the greatest storms to ever affect the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland.
Hurricane Hugo's 3,000 mile track from Africa to the United States.
(Chart courtesy of National Hurricane Center -1990).
Hugo was a classic Cape-Verde tropical cyclone that formed from an area of disturbed weather that emerged off the coast of Africa. On September 10, a depression had formed about 300 miles southwest of the Cape Verde Islands. The westward moving depression reached tropical storm strength late on September 12th. Based on satellite estimates, Hugo became a minimal hurricane late on September 13th. By September 14th, the intensifying cyclone was estimated to have winds in the 110 - 115 mph range. However, Hugo was still almost 1,000 miles away from any land area.
NOAA reconnaissance aircraft reached Hugo late on September 15th, in what turned out to be a historic and dangerous mission. The reconnaissance flight penetrated the eye of Hugo expecting to find winds in the 100-mph range - instead, the crew and aircraft of this mission were nearly lost. Satellite estimates had greatly underestimated the hurricane's strength. In a dangerous low altitude penetration into the eyewall, the crew of this flight recorded sustained winds of 190-mph, and a barometric pressure of 27.10 in. (918 mb). Based on aircraft data, Hugo was estimated to have 160-mph sustained surface winds (category five hurricane). The NOAA aircraft was battered and damaged in the extreme weather conditions. The pilots of the NOAA mission were forced to dump 50,000 pounds of fuel to escape from inside the intense eye of the hurricane.
LEFT: The eye of Hurricane Hugo just to the southeast of St. Croix on September 17, 1989 .
RIGHT: Severe weather conditions on Montserrat Island as Hurricane Hugo approaches (NOAA Photo Library).
On September 17th, Hugo slammed into the islands of Guadeloupe and Montserrat near midnight with sustained winds of 140- mph winds (gusts 170-mph). Damage was extreme throughout Montserrat and in several parts of Guadeloupe Island. Twenty-one people were reported killed, while 12,000 people (nearly the entire population of Montserrat) were left homeless. After passing over Montserrat, Hugo then struck the U.S. Virgin Islands. On St. Croix, the devastation was tremendous - hundreds of roofs were ripped off homes, and many of the islands hotels and resorts were destroyed. Hugo was the worst hurricane in the history of St. Croix ($1 billion in damages in St. Croix alone). Thousands of people were left homeless, and widespread looting on the island forced President Bush to dispatch military police to restore order.
Hugo then turned more northward and struck the far eastern tip of Puerto Rico at 12:00 AM on September 19th. Northeastern Puerto Rico was struck with high seas and sustained winds of 125 mph - suffering heavy damage. On the Island of Culebra, just north of Vieques, the ship Night Cap, recorded a gust of 170-mph while riding out the storm in the harbor. Twelve people were reported to have been killed in the storm, while over 30,000 are left homeless across Puerto Rico. Crossing the mountainous terrain of Puerto Rico, Hugo weakened as it emerged into the Atlantic Ocean late on September 19th.
The remains of hundreds of buildings scattered across Vieques, Puerto Rico after the passage of Hurricane Hugo in September 1989 (Photo NOAA Photo Library).
On September 20th Hurricane Hugo continued moving northwest just to the east of the Bahamas in the direction of the U.S. mainland. The National Hurricane Center estimated Hugo would strike the United States in South Carolina and hurricane warnings were issued. An estimated 250,000 persons fled the low lying areas of Georgia, South Carolina, and southern North Carolina in advance of Hugo. As Hugo continued moving northwesterly, the storm begin to grow in size and intensity over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. Incredibly - in the final ten hours before landfall, Hugo rapidly strengthened to a category four hurricane with sustained winds of 140- mph. The eye of Hugo passed over Sullivan's Island, South Carolina near midnight on September 21st. Hugo was the first major hurricane to cross the South Carolina coast since Gracie in 1959.
Hurricane Hugo closes in on South Carolina with 140-mph winds late on September 22, 1989. Hugo was twice the size of Hurricane Andrew (1992) but less intense. Hugo is the most intense hurricane to ever strike the United States Atlantic coast north of Florida (Photo NOAA).
METEOROLOGICAL CONDITIONS IN THE UNITED STATES
Based on reconnaissance aircraft reports, Hurricane Hugo had sustained winds of around 140-mph when the eye crossed the South Carolina coast. As with most severe landfalling hurricanes, few wind reporting stations were near the area of strongest winds, or survived to record them. The ship "Snow Goose" anchored in the Sampit River, recorded sustained winds of 121-mph. The very strongest winds of the hurricane passed over the unpopulated Francis Marion National Forest. It has been estimated that in this area, from around Bulls Bay to the Santee River, peak wind gusts were likely in the 160 -165 mph range. The National Weather Service Office (NWS) in Downtown Charleston recorded gusts to 108 mph.
Reconnaissance aircraft also reported a barometric pressure of 27.58 (934 mb) just before the eye crossed the coast. A pressure of 27.66 in (936.5 mb) was recorded by storm chaser Jim Leonard on the Savannah Highway near Charleston. This is the lowest known land- based barometric pressure ever measured in Georgia or the Carolinas. There were several reports of pressure in the 936 - 938 mb range near the landfall area around Charleston. The National Weather Service in Charleston recorded a pressure of 27.87 in (943 mb).
Hurricane Hugo produced the highest tidal surge ever recorded along the United States Atlantic coast. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Charleston District), tides reached 19.8-feet above mean sea level at the Romain Refuge Housing Development. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife building at Moores Landing, had a 19.3 foot water mark. Tides 13 - 16 feet above msl were noted near the McClellanville docks. Charleston recorded tides 8 feet above msl near the Custom House.
Building on Sullivan's Island, South Carolina carried inland during Hurricane Hugo's storm surge (Photo WSED-1990).
The bulk of Hugo's fury was unleashed over the rural area north of Charleston, and over the Frances Marion National Forest. This was the area that was located in the eastern eye of Hugo. Fortunately, this area was very sparsely populated. The National Forest of loblolly pines was decimated by the intense winds. The forest looked quite strange after the storm - tens of thousands of trees were sheared off at a height of 15 or 20-feet above the ground. The USDA Forest Service reported Hugo destroyed $100 million worth of timber alone.
Hurricane Hugo ran over the barrier island communities of South Carolina like a freight train. After Hugo had passed, damage reports slowly came in. From the air - news helicopters showed whole swaths of buildings roofless and gutted. Several buildings had been swept right off their foundations - as if hit by a tidal wave. As local and national media coverage of the destruction increased, residents soon realized the enormity of what had occurred out on the islands: the combination of tides 20-feet above normal and winds gusts in excess of 160-mph caused some of the worst cyclone damage along the U.S. east coast ever experienced.
Folly Beach suffered some of the worst destruction wrought by Hugo. About 80% of the homes on the island were destroyed. The main scenic road that runs along ocean (Arctic Avenue) was stripped bare of its pavement - a mass of house wreckage strewn across it. Hundreds of beachfront homes were gutted or flattened. In a pure demonstration of power - The Atlantic House, an over the water restaurant, was completely swept away, only the pilings of the 13,000 square foot restaurant were found the morning after the storm.
The Atlantic House Restaurant and beach - before and after Hurricane Hugo (Photo NOAA).
Sullivan's Island and the Isle of Palms were also battered by Hugo. Homes were knocked off their foundations, streets were covered with furniture, roofing material, boats, and dead animals. Poisonous snakes that had been driven out of the marsh curled around mangled debris. At the Dunes marina, at least 100 boats were stacked in a 50-foot high pile. The 40-ton swing span section of the Ben Sawer Bridge, was ripped lose from its steel lock pivots, and crashed into the waters of the Atlantic Intercoastal waterway.
Although the severest conditions in Hugo were experienced just to the northeast of Charleston - the city was battered. Charleston City Hall and the fire station lost their roofs during the hurricane, while a dozen or more historic churches, and the City Market had severe roofing damage. More than half the cities 4,000 historic structures suffered some type of damage. Tidal flooding along the Battery was severe, with many historic structures receiving flood damage. In was estimated that more than 80% of the historic buildings in Charleston were damaged to some extent. The beautiful moss-draped live oaks of Hampton Park and White Point Gardens were knocked down, as was many of the cities palmetto palms.
Ben Sawyer Bridge lies partially submerged in the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway following Hurricane Hugo in September 1989 (Photo courtesy UACE Charleston District - 1990).
Although the barrier islands had been mostly evacuated - nothing could prepare residents of the South Carolina coastal plain for the fury of the storm surge that rushed across the marshes. Two small fishing communities about three miles from the coast, Awendaw and McClellanville, were submerged by tides 20 feet above normal. The tidal wave-like surge produced terrifying ordeals in many low lying communities:
In McClellanville, more than three miles from the ocean, most of the towns 600 residents took shelter in the Lincoln High School. The building had been selected as a shelter because it was sturdy and 16 feet above sea level: It would offer shelter for people from low lying areas.
During the storm, water first rose around the school and the parking areas, then broke through the doors of the building. Evacuees stood on tables and chairs in an attempt to stay above the rising surge. Water continued to swiftly flood the school. Around 1:00 am water was still rising quickly as the power went out. Many terrified evacuees swim out windows, convinced the school building would be totally submerged. Struggling in darkness, parents lifted screaming children into the roof rafters in neck deep water, as the storm surge rose to to within a few feet of the ceiling. Fortunately, everyone at the Lincoln school survived, however, residents and county officials were shaken to the core.
Due to the extreme intensity of Hugo when it crossed the South Carolina coast - the storm roared through inland communities with unimaginable fury. Many residents of inland areas had not fled mobile and manufactured homes for more substantial shelter, expected only dangerous conditions near the coast. Hugo marched thorough the South Carolina killing scores of people, destroying property, and leaving untold sorrow. Many who had fled the coast found themselves in frighting weather conditins while they waited in motels, shelters, and schools.
In Berkeley county (80 miles inland) wind gusts up to 120-mph, destroyed twelve hundred mobile homes - killing eight residents. In Dorchester county, mobile homes, five apartment buildings, and the Galleria Shopping Center were leveled. In Clarendon county, Clarendon Memorial Hospital suffered extensive damage, and the roof of the new county courthouse was ripped off. In Florence, the Travelers Inn along I-95 lost its roof at the height of the storm, sending two-hundred terrified evacuees running through the darkened buildings trying to find shelter.
Almost two-hundred miles inland Hugo still had 100-mph wind gusts. The major metropolitan area of Charlotte, North Carolina suffered extensive damage. Thousands of large trees fell into homes and business around Charlotte, and glass was shattered in downtown skyscrapers. Torrential rains in Virginia flooded roads and cut power to 2 million people. By late on September 22nd, Hugo finally died over the cool forests of southern Canada.
Unfortunately, despite all media coverage and advanced warnings Hurricane Hugo's human toll was high. Hugo claimed twenty lives in South Carolina. Several of the fatalities occurred in the mobile home communities northwest of Charleston. Other fatalities occurred in North Carolina (seven),Virginia (six), and upstate New York (one), bring the U.S. death toll to Thirty five. In the Caribbean, twelve were killed in Puerto Rico, six in the Virgin Islands, ten in Montserrat, one in Nevis and Atigua, and eleven in Guadeloupe. The total death toll from Hugo was seventy-six.
Hurricane Hugo was the most expensive tropical cyclone to ever strike America up to that time (1989). Hugo was one of the greatest natural disasters in U.S. history. Damages were estimated at $10 billion - with $7 billion in the United States and $3 billion in the Caribbean. Insured losses stand at $4.2 billion. A week after the storm, 56,000 people were homeless in the Carolina's (FEMA - 1991). Twenty-four South Carolina counties were declared Federal Disaster Areas. As late as 2000, many residents were still rebuilding from one of the worst tropical cyclones to ever strike America.
© Michael A.Grammatico 4/06