I didn’t sleep much last night, I unfortunately happened to fall asleep with CNN still blaring on about Gustav – the impending hurricane barreling into the Gulf Coast on Labor Day. I dreamt about my dancer Marcie and her family’s plight, Dinah’s sister Hannah and mother in Baton Rouge, Todd and Sherry Allen and Amy worrying in the Florida panhandle and my friends at Delta Festival Ballet In Metairie LA when Katrina hit in 2005. It also flooded back the memories of Hurricane Hugo. I dreamt about that 19 day nightmare and the 6 month aftermath, that CBT faced while still trying to pay dancers. Ballet and Hurricanes don’t seem to have much in common. But to those of us who began the CBT Season in 1989 on the Monday prior to the storm – little did we know how much they would become firmly tied to the hip to each other.
Now, transplants who have never been through a hurricane may not understand the seriousness of the situation. I have learned to know they’re clueless. They don’t know what to think about it,” Well that is especially true with ballet dancers.
I remember these things.
As he did every Tuesday, Charleston, S.C., Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. sat down with his staff for weekly meeting that day , their minds were on islands hundreds of miles away specifically – Montserrat. Hurricane Hugo had almost leveled the tiny British colony. After leaving Puerto Rico, Hugo had weakened considerably. It was now a Category 2 hurricane, with peak winds of 109 mph. But it was on a path that had brought dozens of other hurricanes to Charleston over the past three centuries. Riley had an uneasy feeling. I remember when Patty got the call from Joe… And he said… you need to leave town and take all the dancers with you.
To most outsiders, the name “Charleston” still evoked images of horse-drawn carriages and moss-draped oaks, of stately homes and a genteel lifestyle that had taken dozens of calamities in stride. But as Riley and his staff well knew, the greater Charleston area was typical of many booming coastal regions. A major hurricane had not hit for 30 years. Since then, thousands of people had settled on the narrow barrier islands, building restaurants and condominiums and expensive houses within feet of the Atlantic Ocean. Thousand more had moved into new developments along the Cooper and the Ashley, the broad rivers that hug Charleston and meet at the tip of the low-lying peninsula on which it sits.
On Noon Wed., Sept. 20, it was sunny as Mayor Riley went before a throng of reporters. Hugo was still 700 miles away and the latest advisories predicted landfall anywhere from north Florida to North Carolina. Riley knew he was taking a gamble. First elected in 1975, the 47-year-old lawyer was an exceedingly popular mayor. But evacuation was costly and inconvenient. Riley knew the risk in urging people to leave while Hugo’s path was so uncertain. No other elected official was willing to join him.
So Riley went on the air alone. And as the other cities had advised, he made the message strong. This hurricane was a killer, Riley said. There was a very good chance that it would strike Charleston, or somewhere close, and if it did, it would be South Carolina’s worst disaster this century. There would be severe flooding. A wall of water eight, 10 maybe, 15 feet high would inundate low-lying areas. People in one-story houses would drown. Now, while the weather was good and the hurricane was far away, now was the time to board up and get out.
We boarded up the studio, and insisted all dancers evacuate the Lowcountry. We got out of town with four cars of dancers, dogs and valuables, and parked on I-26 with the thousands of other evacuees for hours. It was because of Hugo that when Hurricane Floyd hit in 1999, the emergency preparedness officials and politicians pleaded with the state to reverse the eastbound lanes of Interstate 26 heading into Charleston to relieve the clogged westbound lanes. We did not have that luxury.
We plotted out our course to Augusta, got four of the last rooms left and waited it out. Eventually we learned the eye arrived and within a few minutes the wind dropped to a nervous gusty breeze. It was quite warm and not unpleasant under the stars except for the disquieting knowledge of what was yet to come, as well as the disturbing news when the radio news went blank.
Hugo blew into Charleston, S.C., on the evening of Sept. 21, the autumnal equinox, with winds of 138 mph and a 20 foot storm surge on top of astronomically high tides. Hurricane Hugo’s impressive intensity made it the strongest storm to strike the East Coast north of Florida since Hazel in Oct. 1954. Hugo devastated South Carolina’s barrier islands and flattened the Francis Marion National Forest, to the north of Charleston.
Ten billion seemed like mucho dinero at the time, but in comparison is Hurricane Katrina At least 1,836 people combined lost their lives in the actual hurricane and in the subsequent floods, making it the deadliest U.S. hurricane. The storm is estimated to have been responsible for $81.2 billion in damage, making it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
While downtown Charleston, South Carolina suffered extensive damage, the greatest damage was reported in the northern suburbs of Mount Pleasant, Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms, and And Goose Creek. Both islands were cut off from the mainland by destruction of their bridges. Along the coast, Hugo destroyed many houses and the storm surge piled boats on top of each other. The storm’s most intense wind and storm surge came ashore still further north between the small towns of Awendaw and McClellanville. An extraordinary 20-foot storm surge was reported between Cape Romain and Bulls Bay. Boat piled on top of each like toy boats. Most mature trees in the Francis Marion National Forest were uprooted. . In McClellanville, a small fishing town, residents took refuge in Lincoln High School, and were surprised by the sudden tidal surge which flooded the school. With water pouring into the rooms, the refugees helped one another in pitch darkness to climb into the space in the hanging ceiling above the rooms. All survived.
According to Governor Carroll Campbell, there were about 3,000 tornadoes embedded within the hurricane, which accounts for extensive damage in some areas not within the path of the eye wall. Campbell also stated that enough timber was lost within South Carolina to build a home for every family in West Virginia. An immense salvage effort was undertaken to harvest downed pine trees for pulpwood before they deteriorated to the point where they could not be used.
It was Sept. 25, four days beyond Hugo. After an all night drive to Augusta leading four cars of dancers to safety we returned to Charleston with dry ice, gas and water – Patty’s husband, Don stayed to keep watch on the studio, his smiling yet tired face greeted us as we looked at our house without a roof and with 4 chimmeys destroyed.
In a pouring rain that added to the gloom, we saw GI Joes (we nicknamed the National Guard that lived on every corner for the 19 days after the storm, as rag-tag crowd gathered from all points of shelter. Having run the curfew gauntlets, dodged fallen trees and avoided dangling electric lines, I tried to bring my weary brain back into balance. “No, this is not the Holocaust,” I told myself. “We are not bound for a concentration camp. We are only displaced persons on a mission of renewal and rejuvenation. Oh goodness way too many memories.
All I can say to my American neighbors on the Gulf Coast… Leave your home before you can’t get out. God speed. Ballet just doesn’t seem too important today…