Imagine being this late in September and just now getting to the “H” storm of the season. That used to be common. On this day in 1989, Hurricane Hugo was our “H” storm and it left an impact on the Southeast that has not been forgotten.
The storm was the worst hurricane in South Carolina’s history. It made landfall as a powerful cat 4 hurricane around midnight, with winds of 135 mph. It absolutely devastated coastal South Carolina and brought damaging winds and flooding to much of the Carolinas. The scene below was a common scene through large portions of South Carolina.
Like so many tropical systems this time of year, Hugo originated off the Africa coastline and tracked westward. At one point, Hugo strengthened into the most powerful of all storms; a category 5. Thankfully, that occurred while the storm was out at sea.
Many of us believe Hugo was on the way to restrengthening to that intensity when the coast of South Carolina got in the way. Pictured below is the path of Hugo. The different colors of the path correspond to intensity. Hugo was strengthening when landfall occurred. Notice it was still a tropical storm when it clipped northeastern Tennessee!
Hurricane Hunters investigating the storm expected to fly into a strong hurricane but they had no idea Hugo had exploded into a cat 5. They penetrated the eyewall about 3,500 feet too low for such a powerful hurricane. The next thing they knew, they were dropping toward the ocean within a downdraft they barely escaped. In fact, they came within 800 feet of plunging into the ocean!
Hurricane Hunter planes can handle a lot but the forces on this flight almost took the plane down. One engine was knocked out and a second, on the same wing, was crippled. A life raft within the plane put a dent in a metal rod! The planes are made to withstand 3 Gs of forces and this one withstood 5.5 Gs. We usually measure Gs when we talk about rocket launches and roller coasters. The plane suffered all kinds of damage.
The Hurricane Hunter craft finally ascended to 7,000 feet and found a bit of a weakness to escape the storm through. What a ride that must have been! Debris was everywhere inside the plane and even waste deep in one location. Anything that wasn’t bolted to the plane was thrown. The picture below is from the inside of that plane.
Pictured below is the surface map animation, showing the track of Hugo. The storm even brought tropical storm conditions to northeastern portions of Tennessee.
For such a powerful hurricane, Hugo didn’t produce the rainfall amounts you might expect. Granted, the storm brought in a 20 foot storm surge along the coast, but the rapid movement of the storm kept it from producing incredible rainfall amounts. Even our area saw some rain from the storm!
Hugo was the first significant weather event of my childhood. I remember it well. I had just gotten my very own 13-inch black and white tv the Christmas before. I have two younger brothers and having my own tv in my own room was Heaven (ha).
The night Hugo hit I was glued to the tv. I’m not sure why, but it all absolutely fascinated me. I watched as reporters came to me live from beach so-and-so, then sent it back to another journalist on another beach. It was one hellish weather scene after another. I was glued to the tv. I begged mom and dad to let me stay up and watch the late night landfall and they let me. I’m so glad they did. I knew weather was my thing from that night forward. I finally fell asleep in my darkened room, with nothing but the flicker of the little tv bouncing off my walls.
This was back when major hurricanes were very rare. We didn’t have cable or satellite. Dad said he wasn’t going to have three sons watching tv all the time (ha!). So I had to rely on local networks to continuously broadcast. Thank goodness they did!
I think it’s safe to say that Meteorologist Mark was born that night (ha). Always encourage your kids or the young people around you to pursue their passions. It sure can make for an interesting and fulfilling life!
Sadly, Hurricane Hugo took the lives of 86 people through its lifetime. It’s a million wonders that number isn’t significantly higher. The storm became the most expensive hurricane in American history (up to that point) and nearly downed a Hurricane Hunter plane. The storm damaged or destroyed millions of acres of forestland. And no one can forget the phenomenal 20-foot storm surge that came in at high tide. Hugo had the storm surge of a cat 5 hurricane!
And then there’s the toll the storm took on the loss of homes. It’s all mind boggling.
Hugo was one for the record books and one many of us will never forget. Rest assured, there are many folks in the Carolinas who are reflecting in this event tonight, too.