Hugo Leaves Behind Flood of Reminders

Originally published May 27, 1990, Sun-Sentinel

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Eight months after a killer hurricane named Hugo trampled the Carolinas, the survivors still see his footprints and bear his weight.

For Larry Cobb, the reminder of that black September night comes with every $379 mortgage payment he makes on a house that was smashed to splinters.

For Gayle Wurthmann, it comes with the sunlight seeping through the holes in her bedroom ceiling and the ring of scum that floodwaters left 5 feet high on the first-floor walls.

“It’s there every day,” said Linda Tucker, whose Isle of Palms home is still a wreck. “It’s like it never ends.”

Hugo’s reminder comes with another pile of twisted trees at the side of the road or another stack of government forms to fill out. Insurance companies still process claims — but only if policyholders nag them day after day.

Students still move desks into newly opened classrooms. Crisis hot lines still buzz with frightened voices.

Hurricane season starts anew on Friday, and weary South Carolinians shake their heads, knowing that South Floridians have no idea about what to expect when the Big One hits.

“You have a strong obligation to scare the hell out of people,” said Tom Blazer, chairman of the Charleston Trident Chamber of Commerce.

“Every roof in Charleston has to be replaced,” said Larry Gibson, a roofer from Abilene, Texas, who has repaired 70 in six months.

Officials have braced for a crush of lawsuits now that state law forbids some beachfront homeowners to rebuild. Apartments are scarce. Rip-off artists are out. Crime is up. Roadside landmarks are down.

“I’ve been lost in this city that I’ve lived in for nine years,” said Jamie Thomas, Charleston County spokeswoman.

Few expected the devastation that Hugo left when it came ashore in the early hours of Sept. 22, 1989.

Fewer still expected it to linger so long.

“I think the worst part is after the storm. I really do,” said Sullivan’s Island Fire Chief Anthony Stith. “I don’t think anybody was ready for after the storm.”

In Charleston’s historic downtown, cobblestoned alleys again lure tourists past antique pubs and Revolution-era rowhouses.

Mules pull tour carriages past grand antebellum mansions around the Battery overlooking Fort Sumter, where the first artillery rounds ignited the Civil War. Here, the signs of Hugo are beginning to fade.

But outlying communities are still struggling to get back on their feet.

Before Hugo, Larry Cobb had a hundred neighbors. Now he has a handful. In the Charleston County community of Copahee View, only one house remained standing in Hugo’s wake. It wasn’t Cobb’s.

Cobb lived in “a $500 house with a $500,000 view,” overlooking a vast plain of rustling sawgrass and the Intracoastal Waterway. He rode out Hugo aboard his shrimp boat Bridget.

“No part of the house was left. No clothes, no nothing,” Cobb said.

He fought four months with his insurance company and recovered a third of the cost to rebuild. He fought four more months to find building supplies for a new house and still makes payments on the old one.

He works side by side with volunteers from the Church of the Brethren, who have set up a campsite in the midst of Copahee View. All around them, a dozen piles of crushed housing material still litter the community.

Cobb’s new house is rising on 17 1/2-foot pilings above the marsh grass, and every day he drives nearly an hour to work on it. Cobb is among the lucky ones; he found a place to live quickly after the storm. His father had room.

After Hugo destroyed 6,000 homes in Charleston County, the housing market was crushed with demand. Displaced families competed with out-of-state construction workers and insurance adjusters for apartments.

Newspaper pages once jammed with rental ads were squeezed to nothing.

“We got an apartment primarily by begging,” said Kay Mance, a Charleston school district administrator whose home was gutted on the Isle of Palms. “I said my children can’t move back until we have an apartment.”

She moved in ahead of 60 others on a waiting list.

Those who could stay in their homes faced a stream of builders and contractors who came from across the nation looking to make a buck in South Carolina’s instant, booming home-repair market.

Many who were victimized by Hugo became victims again when unscrupulous builders took money for work they never did. Others did shoddy work.

“A lot of people took a hurting,” said Rick Mott, a solo builder working on a recent Sunday. “People were so desperate they were hiring just about anybody.”

Hugo’s lingering daily presence has taken its toll. Experts see it in the number of calls they get on crisis hot lines. School principals see it in the number of fights and fits of emotion they see.

“When Hugo first hit, you couldn’t think about being upset. You had to get the tree out of your driveway or you had to get propane to cook,” said Charlotte Anders, director of Hotline Inc.

Now, she said, people have time to reflect on the 140 mph winds that whipped through town in September. She said the hot line has taken thousands of calls from emotionally troubled people — particularly after some recent thunderstorms.

“They said they were surprised that this hurt and scared them,” Anders said.

Any good news is welcome

When Charleston opened Waterfront Park on May 11, throngs turned out to enjoy it. Couples stroll along the pebbled walkways of the grassy commons beside the Cooper River. Bright pink petunias ring a fountain where children splash.

“When that opened, you would have thought we’d landed a man on Mars,” said Steve Mullins, assistant managing editor at the Charleston News and Courier. “People just needed something.”

Three weeks ago, more good news brought national attention: The last school closed by Hugo finally reopened.

Sullivan’s Island Elementary School, with a picturesque beachfront setting that left it vulnerable, welcomed back 350 of its 400 students. They spent most of the year doubled up with students in a school 30 minutes away.

“They treated us like we were pigs,” said Erin Burton, 9. “I don’t think they wanted to share their school with us.”

Principal Fleming Harris said opening day could not have come fast enough. Friends had moved away. At other schools, high school seniors lost football seasons and school dances. Cramped classrooms wore tempers thin.

“They’d cry at the drop of a hat,” Harris said. “These kids lost so doggone much. They lost friends, they lost homes.”

Many have lost a measure of youthful freedom as well. Parents don’t let children frolic as freely in their neighborhoods and on their beaches.

On Sullivan’s Island alone, police calls have increased tenfold in the past four months. Police say burglaries have tripled; they blame a combination of wrecked communities and out-of-state construction workers.

A Charleston-area rape crisis center reports a 68 percent increase in assaults. Police call the marauders “Hugonites.”

Sullivan’s Island Police Chief Jack Lilienthal expects crime to drop as the island’s homes are rebuilt.

Some South Carolina homes may never be replaced. In 1988, the state Legislature passed the Beachfront Management Act, designed to push back development from the dunes and preserve eroding beaches.

“It was written for storms such as this one,” said Donna Gress, spokeswoman for the South Carolina Coastal Council. Sea walls, swimming pools and 151 homes were lost to Hugo permanently because the law forbids rebuilding that close to the shore, she said.

Most of those who can rebuild are just getting started. Insurance companies fought among each other to decide what had damaged policyholder houses. Was it wind, flooding or rain?

Many have given up. Wrecked homes will never be rebuilt because the owners abandoned the area.

But many others have not quit.

“We love this island. I mean, look at that,” said Kay Mance, nodding toward the surf. “It’s hard to believe it was such a killer.

Copyright 1990, Sun-Sentinel

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