30 Years Ago: Hurricane Hugo, Appalachia’s Storm

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Damage from Hurricane Hugo, courtesy of ‘Yogurt_yeah’
Damage from Hurricane Hugo, courtesy of ‘Yogurt_yeah’

Next month marks the 30th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo, a category 4 hurricane, making landfall on September 22, 1989, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Though I was only a small child at the time and living on our family’s farm in Southwest Virginia, hundreds of miles away in the mountains of Appalachia, the storm is one that I remember well as do most everyone else in these parts — “Hugo” is mentioned by the old timers on a regular basis during hurricane season and in our part of the country sets the fearful standard for damage hurricanes can inflict upon mountain communities.

“Wake up, it’s time to go down into the basement,” announced my mother to her confused and sleepy boy one autumn evening in 1989.

By the day’s end, a giant oak tree that had been towering over the family farm’s yard for close to a century was gone — and we were some of the more fortunate folks.

Ten miles to our south, neighbors who lived up in the mountains were stranded at their homes due to the number of downed trees blocking their sparsely traveled gravel road; stories like this were multiplied countless times over across the Virginias and Carolinas.

At the time of landfall, the storm was registering sustained winds of 140mph with gusts measuring at speeds of up to 160 mph.

Though the storm’s intensity quickly waned, the the northwestward trekking hurricane emptied incredible levels of rainwater onto localities in Western North Carolina and Southwest Virginia. Mountain communities along the crest of the Blue Ridge received as much as a 7 inches of rain.

As the eye of the storm crossed From North Carolina into Virginia, Hugo was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm in Grayson County, Virginia, but with the ground heavily saturated the winds easily wrought havoc upon the trees of Appalachia.

Downed trees and flooding left schools in Southwest Virginia closed for more than three weeks because of damages communities sustained.

After passing through Virginia’s western counties, Hugo had weakened into a remnant low near Lake Erie, but not before becoming the most intense tropical cyclone to strike the East Coast north of Florida since 1898. In total, the storm claimed the lives of an estimated 60 individuals and caused what equates to damages in excess of $18-billion in 2018 money.

After the storm, South Carolina Governor Carroll Campbell said that the storm destroyed enough timber in South Carolina to “frame a home for every family in the state of West Virginia”.

With so much timber destroyed, an army of workers set out to take part in one of the largest timber salvage efforts in world history.

“You couldn’t sell wood to nobody,” said one resident of Carroll County, Virginia, whose road was blocked for five days by downed trees.

”The best you could hope for was that somebody would come by and help you saw some of it up just to clean it—we burned firewood until the Dole-Clinton election sawed from Hugo,” he added.

While resident sawed hardwoods, lumber companies focused much of their effort on salvaging downed pine trees for pulpwood before they deteriorated to the point where they could not be used.

Still standing timber that appeared usable for lumber and plywood frequently had annular separations of the rings that made them dangerous to saw and nearly impossible to cut into plies, so they were also downgraded into pulpwood, leading to such a drop in pulpwood prices that eventually much of the salvage effort ceased.

In South Carolina, which bore the brunt of the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was accused of being slow in responding, South Carolina’s US Senator Fritz Hollings referred to the agency as “a bunch of bureaucratic jackasses” during a speech on the floor of the United States Senate. An investigation was launched, which led to some reforms in FEMA procedures that helped the agency do a somewhat better job during Hurricane Andrew, the next catastrophic hurricane to strike the United States. However, FEMA was criticized severely in 2005 for its similarly insufficient response to Hurricane Katrina.

In addition to governmental relief, extensive relief aid was provided throughout by the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, and various churches.

In total, Hurricane Hugo caused 34 fatalities (most by electrocution or drowning), left nearly 100,000 homeless, and resulted in $9.47 billion (1989 USD) in damage overall, making it the most damaging hurricane ever recorded at the time. Of this total, $7 billion was from the United States and Puerto Rico, ranking it as the costliest storm to impact the country at the time.

Though it’s been 30 years since “Hugo” first entered the lexicon of Appalachian residents, the odds are quite high that if you lived through Appalachia’s hurricane, you still remember it quite well!

This article is a collection of excerpts from a larger article that will be published in the Fall 2019 edition of the print magazine. Click here to learn more about receiving a year’s subscription of the print edition of Appalachian Magazine!

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