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The Catalyst

Remembering Hurricane Hugo 25 years later

Staff Reports

The late poet Robert Frost had long gone to his reward by Sept. 21, 1989, when Hurricane Hugo made landfall around midnight on South Carolina’s coast. But the excerpts below from his poem, “One Step Backward Taken,” could well apply to the unforgettable sights and sounds many of us witnessed that horrible night:

I felt my standpoint shaken
In the universal crisis.
But with one step backward taken
I saved myself from going.

With a 20–foot storm surge and winds topping 135 miles per hour, the Category 4 hurricane slammed into the Palmetto State, with McClellanville and surrounding areas taking the
brunt of Hugo’s fury as the eye entered Charleston Harbor. One physical plant worker at MUSC recalled the eerie environment in the hours before Hugo’s arrival, saying only, “It was dark — real dark.”

A world torn loose went by me.
Then the rain stopped and the blowing,
And the sun came out to dry me.

By the time Hugo’s remnants entered Canada, it had claimed approximately 60 lives and left nearly 100,000 homeless. Its intensity was such that hurricane–force wind gusts were felt as far inland as western North Carolina. It resulted in $10 billion in damage in 1989 (more than $19 billion in today’s dollars), making it the most damaging storm ever recorded at the time. Other hurricanes have since passed it in terms of fatalities and damage, but many Lowcountry residents still mark time as pre–Hugo and post–Hugo. There will never be another Hugo, in fact, as the National Weather Service has retired the name.

Here at MUSC, acts of heroism were everywhere. In this special section marking Hugo’s 25th anniversary are first–hand accounts of the utter chaos only a Category 4 hurricane can bring, the courageous actions that sprang out of the melee and the struggle to return to normalcy in the days and weeks that followed.

We hope you enjoy this retrospective commemorating a milestone in MUSC’s rich history.

Editor's note: Special thanks go to Brooke Fox, university archivist, MUSC Waring Historical Library and the library’s online exhibit, "20 Years Later, MUSC Remembers Hugo"
Photos by James H. Nicholson, Department of Pathology & Lab Medicine and Anne Thompson, Digital Imaging

Timeline of the Storm - Sept. 21, 1989

Thursday, Sept. 21

  • 7 a.m.  – Heavy rains and 40 mph winds begin pounding lower counties of South Carolina.
  • 9 p.m. – Hugo is upgraded to a Category 4 strorm and takes direct aim at Charleston.
  • 10 p.m. – Charleston first experiences hurricane-force winds.

Friday, Sept. 22

  • 12:30 a.m. – Eye passes over Charleston; 135 mph winds, five foot tidal surge, torrential rain, severe flooding. Emergency power implemented, phone service dies, communication problems ensue.
  • 2 a.m. – High tide along with the impact of the tidal surge causes massive flooding with rainfall amounts between 5-10 inches, storm tides 12-17 feet above normal.
  • The Eye – 40 miles wide, 140 mile wind extension. As storm moves inland, speeds diminish.


December 11, 2014



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