Saturday, September 20, 2014

Hurricane Hugo: "Them Deer Heads Are Hard to Come By"

Hurricane Hugo from space


I stayed up late into the night on Sept. 21, 1989, watching CNN and baking apple pies. A bunch of my friends had gone to the Rowan County Fair, but I was trying to prove to a co-worker that I could replicate my mom’s award-winning creations in the kitchen. I don’t think I succeeded.

I was too distracted by seeing Hurricane Hugo make landfall on Sullivan’s Island, S.C.

Little did I know that just a few hours later, the storm would smash into the inland town where I lived and I would get my first chance to cover a real natural disaster.

I don’t pretend that what we experienced was at all similar to my friends on the South Carolina coast, where Hugo killed 35 people and caused $6 billion in damage. I never understood why the storm had to take out most of Charleston, one of America's greatest cities, and leave most of Myrtle Beach and South of the Border relatively unscathed.

At least Lowcountry residents were warned to evacuate and expecting something bad to happen that night, and voyeuristic newsies like myself were eager to watch at a time when live weather coverage of major storms was still in its infancy.

At the time, I lived in Salisbury, N.C., some 250 miles from where Hugo came ashore as a Category 4 storm near Charleston. It headed straight up I-85 at a blistering speed and was still a Category 1 storm with 89-mile-an-hour winds when it crossed the Rowan County line.

None of us had any hatches to batten down. So when the lights went out and the brick chimney in the apartment where I lives collapsed in the middle of the night, it was unexpected.

The trees were still bent and misshapen when the eye of the storm passed over and I went outside to see the damage. I was living on Fulton Street near downtown. Locals will know exactly what I mean when I say three doors down from Mrs. Hanford, where Liddy grew up.

The storm hit around 6 a.m. and the worst of it was gone in less than an hour. I was able to drive nonlinearly to the office, avoiding downed trees and live power lines, in my little red Honda. It had been a bad year already for storms in North Carolina. That spring, an F4 tornado tore through my hometown of Vale, killing four people and taking out an eight-mile swath in the landscape.

The funny thing was, I showed up to a mostly empty newsroom. There were two other sportswriters, Steve Phillips and Horace Billings, and two or three news reporters and a couple of layout artists. One of the guys who ran the presses lived in the apartment above me. While much of the county was without power for weeks to come, our skeleton crew that morning was able to get out a full noon edition of the paper, unlike most of our competitors in the area.

The damage and misery notwithstanding, it was a glorious day to be a newspaper reporter.

Rowan Memorial Hospital lost its phones. The county’s 911 services were out. The Emergency Operations Center even lost its backup generator. Trees blocked Fulton Street and chainsaws were buzzing all morning long.

I somehow ended up at the hospital, checking on injuries around town. As I recall, the only one reported there was a man with a severe ankle injury. He slipped while running in flip-flops to answer the phone. It was his wife calling him to be careful, there was a storm coming.


Other reporters, Steve and I spent all day Friday running around town, dictating reports to the newsroom for Friday’s special edition and Saturday afternoon’s regular afternoon edition. I shared a frontpage byline with Martha Yates about the damage done to the city and the sadness it caused. I have no idea who got this gem of an anecdote that appeared in Saturday’s paper, but if there has ever been a better quote about surviving a natural disaster, I haven’t heard it.

Jimmy Carpenter had just moved from his recliner to a sofa when a tree crushed half of his mobile home. Carpenter was safe, as were his wife and pregnant daughter, but the taxidermy trophies on his wall were crushed.

“Look at that…It crushed my deer heads,” Carpenter said. “We can replace the trailer, but them deer heads are hard to come by.”

It was the biggest story of the decade and the first time I ever participated in award-winning journalism. Our staff took first place in our division for spot news coverage in the North Carolina Press Association awards. A judge noted that we did exceptional work getting out a paper that day, when few others did. As Steve says, “Not really. We were just lucky that we had power.”

Soon enough, though, we were both back to covering sports.

Hugo hit on a Friday morning. High school games were canceled throughout the area, but the NC State-North Carolina football game was on as scheduled Saturday afternoon. Steve and I drove to Raleigh to for the game, which the Wolfpack won 40-6. Driving back into town late that night was like entering a war zone.

The next few weeks were a grind, trying to live without power and work and hearing the heartwrenching stories from South Carolina about those who survived the storm, those who didn’t and all they endured.

A few months later I was offered a job at the Myrtle Beach Sun-News to write about golf on the Grand Strand, but I couldn’t bring myself to take it. The entire area was still decimated.

I’ve made it through a surprising number of hurricanes since that early morning experience 25 years ago. I played golf Hope Valley Country Club in Durham with Steve Elling and Dave Droschak the day Hurricane Fran hit Raleigh in 1996. The last three holes were the soggiest I have ever played. 

Two days later, the airport was still running on generators when I flew to Syracuse to cover North Carolina’s win at the Carrier Dome. NC State played Georgia Tech at Carter-Finley Stadium that on about half of its electricity.

From the window of our resort hotel, my wife and I watched a minor Category 1 hurricane hit the beach at Aventura, Fla., snuggled up with no electricity and food from the defrosting hotel kitchen. They didn’t even bother to charge us for everything we took from the minibar that night.

When Floyd hit in 1999, I went to Greenville to cover the massive flooding around East Carolina’s campus. The entire eastern part of the state seemed to be under water.

I even went to New Orleans a few years after Katrina for a week-long Habitat for Humanity project to rebuilding a neighborhood. 

Hurricanes still scare me and, because of Hugo’s unbelievable wrath, always will. 

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