CHARLESTON, S.C. -- At the Isle of Palms marina, the yachts are back in place. As they bob gently on their moorings, their brass fixtures glisten in the sunshine. A year ago, they were stacked like splintered toys on Goat Island, across a wide channel from the docks, slammed on the shore by Hurricane Hugo.
Then, Ben Moise shook his head in disbelief. He passed Goat Island in his 15-foot launch the day after Hugo, on his way to inspect his island retreat an hour to the north. Moise saw more destruction than he could stomach that day. The vistas were of fractured houses and snapped pine trees, stripped of their limbs. His own little island, a 10-acre paradise tucked among the marshes, had been swept clean.
Today, Moise barely glances up as he motors along the winding Intracoastal Waterway that separates the barrier islands from the mainland. All along the route, houses that were raked by Hugo's 135-mph winds rise again from the beaches, bigger and better than before. Docks, with clean, new planking, again jut from the shore. Off Goat Island, the only remaining evidence of Hugo's visit is a partially submerged blue and white motorboat, and it lies rustically cocked at an angle that suggests it could have been there for years.
Another hurricane could ruin it all again in a day, but that does not seem to be cause for concern among those who have rebuilt here on the shifting sands.
"It's just like people who live on the Mississippi River. There's no way you can fight the inevitable, so why worry about it?" Moise explains. But why rebuild? "It's home."
The story of Hurricane Hugo a year later is a mixture of recovery and rebirth and continuing grief. On the barrier islands, the fully insured homes of the wealthy that lined the ocean dunes are back, seemingly more substantial than before. Replacement homes have been built stronger to withstand hurricanes. Ones that were salvageable have new decks, some have whole new second floors, courtesy of private insurance. To drive along Atlantic Avenue on Sullivan's Island, where nearly every house is undergoing renovations, is a carpenter's dream. In Charleston, where rich antebellum mansions have stood their ground through two centuries of hurricanes, Hugo's pain was relatively minor. Now that the shutters have been reattached to their hinges and the slate tiles stuck back on the roofs, Hugo has been reduced to a memory.
Farther out in the lowlands, in places like tiny McClellanville, 30 miles to the north of Charleston, the misery continues. Hugo's tidal surge pushed a 12-foot wall of water through this picturesque fishing village. The docks were torn away from shore. The fleet of shrimp boats was tossed like chopped firewood into the porches of homes that fronted Jeremy Creek.
A year after the storm, some of the villagers are still bunking with neighbors or camping in upstairs rooms of their once-flooded houses waiting for government loans or volunteer help so that they can begin to rebuild.
Hugo, which swept through Charleston just before midnight Sept. 21, killed 21 people in the Carolinas and paralyzed parts of the states for months. The storm knocked out electrical power to whole cities and towns for weeks, contaminated wells with its floods and put hundreds of thousands of residents out of work.
The magnitude of Hugo's destruction is measured in mind-boggling statistics. Hugo caused an estimated $10 billion in damage to the Southeast, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, which were struck by Hugo four days before the storm pounded the mainland. Hugo killed 28 people in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Insured losses were estimated at $4.2 billion. South Carolina alone counted 494,043 insurance claims filed. Five months after Hugo, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was still logging in an average of 100 applications a day for federal aid.
On a smaller scale, the numbers still confound. Charleston County, which ran up a $28 million tab just cleaning up debris, hauled 245,000 tons a month to its only landfill, which, before Hugo, was set up to handle a monthly rate of 6,000 tons.
But the worst part about the recovery is that it has taken so long.
Much of the delay, to those who endured it, has been blamed on public and private bureaucratic hurdles that seemed to complicate the recovery rather than simplify it.
The officials at FEMA were scorched with criticism for responding too slowly to the disaster, and tales of government Catch-22s were more plentiful than if Joseph Heller had scripted the recovery saga himself.
To qualify for a $10,000 government grant to repair his house, Buster Brown of McClellanville had to have the house declared a complete loss. Then the government told Brown he would have to have the house insured or he would lose the money. When Brown tried to buy insurance, the insurance company told him it would not insure something that was a complete loss.
The difficulties endured by McClellanville, which bore the full brunt of Hugo's force, came to symbolize the inadequacies of the official recovery effort throughout the region. Much of McClellanville was rebuilt with the help of volunteers who set up work camps at the edge of town.
Mary Ellen Sullivan's three-bedroom blue clapboard house in Scotia Street was flooded, and its support beams were broken by the surge. She did not expect, a full year after Hugo, to still be living in a house trailer in her front yard. Her Small Business Administration loan, which will provide $60,000 to replace her home, was approved only last Wednesday. She applied for the loan last November.
"It's a reasonable outcome," she said, "if it had not taken 10 months."
Becky and Irving Ashley, who stood on their front porch a year ago as Hugo's surge washed through the backdoor and out the front, are still working to rid themselves of Hugo's mess.
For months, Becky Ashley used bleach to scour away the mold spots that reappeared every few days on the walls. Finally she gave up. The mold grew back permanently at the waterline, 32 1/2 inches from the floor.
"You have to remember that even though it's been almost a full year, and it's been this way for so long and you want so badly to return to that sense of things being normal, you can't," Ashley said. "You have to keep telling yourself this is not normal. You're not supposed to have curtains that are moldy."
Irving Ashley's clam and oyster business was wiped out. His dock was torn away, his processing building flattened. The barge and other equipment were thrown a mile and then slammed to earth. Last winter, he dug clams by hand.
But when the oyster season opens this fall, Irving plans to be back at work. This fall, he will tear out the walls of his house, strip out the insulation and Becky will get down on her hands and knees and scrub the interiors with a wire brush and more bleach to finally rid her house of the smell of mold and puff mud. And then they will rebuild. It is their home.
Out on Moise Island, Ben Moise pulled the Boston Whaler up to his new dock, scavenged from dozens of dock sections that littered the marshes.
A new privy has been set up. At the center of the island, friends have constructed a new cook shed and placed a picnic table under the roof.
Moise's cabin is about 1 1/2 miles away, where Hugo tossed it, now a permanent fixture in a duck pond. It had been lovingly constructed with deer antler handles on the cupboards, siding collected from an old football stadium in Chapel Hill and 16-inch pine floor planks recovered from an old warehouse in Savannah.
That day after Hugo, Moise spotted his cabin across the marshes lying on its side. A few days later, he drove around to inspect it. He righted it, thought about retrieving it, but decided against it. The cabin would never be the same, not after what Hugo did.
"We enjoyed it, however briefly, to the fullest," he said. "The night before Hugo, I came over here and rescued two cats and some books and some of the pictures. Then I locked it up and kissed her goodbye. And that was that."