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Before hitting the U.S. mainland, Hurricane Hugo first hit the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

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Hurricane Hugo Rips Through South Carolina

135-Mph Winds, Tides Pound Charleston Area

By Laura Parker and William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 22, 1989; Page A01
© The Washington Post

CHARLESTON, S.C., SEPT. 21 -- The eye of Hurricane Hugo, the region's most severe storm in 35 years, moved into South Carolina here about 11:30 p.m. with 135 mph winds and about a five-foot tidal surge that battered a wide area around this 319-year-old city, which was largely deserted.

Torrential rain and damaging winds shook the area, and severe flooding was reported, although the tidal surge was thought to be far greater -- perhaps as high as 17 feet -- about 25 miles north near the tiny town of McClellanville.

Charleston County and neighboring Georgetown County were reported using only emergency power about midnight, and telephone service went dead shortly after 11 p.m.

There were no immediate reports of casualties or estimates of damage from officials at the state's emergency preparedness center in the capital at Columbia about 100 miles away. One tornado was reported in the Columbia area.

Initial damage reports were spotty because of communications problems, and many involved roofs. The center said the roof of the National Weather Service building at Charleston Air Force Base blew off about two minutes after officials there reported by ham radio that Hugo's eye was above them.

In Georgetown near the coast north of Charleston, the center said, the roof blew off a school being used as a shelter, but no injuries were reported.

At 2 a.m. Friday, as Hugo slammed 100 mph winds at Berkeley County about 25 miles north of Charleston, authorities there cited "a chaotic situation" and asked for National Guard help in rescue and road-clearing operations, saying that people were stranded and that fire trucks could not reach blazes. No injuries were reported.

Officials at two Charleston hospitals said early Friday morning that no injured people had been treated, but one added, "No one can move around."

In Charleston about 10 p.m., windows had begun bulging and popping at the eight-story Omni Hotel near the Battery along the sea wall. Authorities said the windows had been tested to withstand winds of 250 mph.

Just before midnight, the National Hurricane Center reported from Coral Gables, Fla., that winds in downtown Charleston were being measured at 100 mph with gusts to 119 mph.

The center said that most of Hugo's punch was in the portion behind the eye and that heavy rain and high winds could remain in the Charleston area until midday Friday.

Power outages had begun about 9 p.m., well after most of the people in this city of more than 75,000 had been evacuated. About 200 people were at the darkened Omni, most of them Charleston residents who said they had decided not to leave the area.

More than 200 highway patrol officers and 1,300 members of the National Guard were stationed inland to keep people out of coastal areas. As soon as the storm passed, they were planning to move toward the coast to assist cleanup efforts and maintain order, according to officials at the center.

Officials said more than 120,000 people had been evacuated from Charleston County almost three hours before Hugo reached the area. Officials said 22,800 people were in 121 shelters statewide.

At the Omni, Allison Harwood, who is in her 60s and said she lives near the hotel, said she had come for shelter because she did not want to leave her house, built in the 1700s. She said she had taped all of the doors and windows.

The hotel doors were barricaded, with sandbags piled in front of doors. People were urged not to leave, and only reporters departed, interested in seeing the area near the sea wall.

By 10:15 p.m., word passed through the hotel that windows in a sixth-floor room were breaking and that windows elsewhere were bulging. Workmen carrying wooden 2-by-4s passed through the lobby on their way to repair French doors that had blown open.

Outside, electrical power went out by sections in the city, officials said. Lightning flashed occasionally, centuries-old trees bent toward the earth or were uprooted and rain poured in sheets.

Earlier this evening, Hurricane Center Director Robert Sheets said of Hugo's ferocious approach, "This is clearly a worst-case condition." He noted that the combination of high tide, expected at 2:13 a.m. in Charleston, the tidal surge preceding Hugo and waves generated by the storm could inundate a wide area of coastal plain.

"We expect there could be extensive flooding and considerable damage," he said.

The hurricane center said areas in the path of the storm could expect rainfall of between five and 10 inches.

U.S. military authorities began moving hundreds of aircraft and a score of ships from bases in Hugo's path, Defense Department officials said.

Seven bases, including Oceana Naval Air Station and Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, also were preparing for possible evacuation, Pentagon spokesman Fred S. Hoffman said.

More deadly and destructive than Hugo's 135 mph winds were the surging tides accompanying landfall. The hurricane center was predicting storm tides 12 to 17 feet above normal.

These powerful storm surges result from the great dome of water that travels trapped within the swirling interior of the hurricane. The tidal surge, often accompanied by high crashing waves, could easily flood low-lying coastal areas and inundate barrier islands in the storm's path.

Nine of 10 hurricane fatalities are attributed to the storm surge. During the most severe such storms, tides can rise 25 feet above normal.

Concern about storm surges is even greater if the hurricane arrives during a high tide.

"Timing is everything," said Vic Wiggert, a scientist at the center who is using computer models and charts to predict the height of storm surges at a dozen locations along the East Coast. The magnitude of the storm surge is related to the intensity and size of the hurricane and topography of the ocean's bottom near landfall.

In relatively shallow waters such as those between Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, where the continental shelf extends far offshore, a hurricane can affect the ocean water all the way to the seabed, creating more violent waves and drawing up more water into the surge.

The more intense the wind, and the larger the hurricane, the greater the storm surge.

Hugo's eye was described as very large, at 40 miles wide, and hurricane-force winds extended as far as 140 miles from it. Tropical storm winds of about 50 to 60 mph reached 250 miles from the eye.

The worst of the storm surges was expected just north of the eye because most of the water is piled toward that edge of the hurricane, a phenomenon caused by the counterclockwise rotation of hurricanes and the easterly rotation of the Earth.

Regions immediately south of the eye could experience tides far below normal. When Hurricane Donna crashed into Florida in 1960, for example, it sucked out so much water that Florida Bay was dry in places, Wiggert said.

Forecasters said that, as Hugo moved inland, its wind speed should diminish but that the storm would remain dangerous.

"When it moves up the Appalachian chain, we expect heavy rain, flash flooding and possible tornadoes," Sheets said. The hurricane center issued an advisory today saying "a few tornadoes are likely in portions of South and North Carolina tonight."

Forecaster Bob Case said previous hurricanes with far less strength than Hugo had brought torrential rains and significant flooding as they moved inland and neared the Appalachian Mountains.

The "scientific term is 'orographic uplifting,' " Case said. "That means that the air is forced upward, where it cools, and cool air cannot hold as much moisture as warm air. It's like you're wringing the sponge. That's what it amounts to."

The last storm to rival Hugo, forecasters said, was Hurricane Hazel, which struck near the border of North and South Carolina in October 1954. Hazel caused extensive damage along a wide swath from Cape Fear, N.C., to Richmond. Its center passed through western Fairfax County, Va.

In Washington today, President Bush authorized federal disaster aid for Puerto Rico where Hugo caused extensive damage.

Staff writers Michael York in Coral Gables and Molly Moore in Washington contributed to this report. Booth reported from Columbia, S.C.

©Copyright 1989 The Washington Post

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