Like a giant, brass-knuckled fist, Hurricane Hugo smashed its way from the Leeward Islands in the West Indies and pummeled a path to the Carolinas in 1989. Hugo made landfall in the Isle of Palms, South Carolina as a terrifying Category 4 storm powered by 140 mph winds. When it had finally expended itself, it had left 34 people dead in the Caribbean and caused 27 fatalities in South Carolina, left 100,000 people homeless, and racked up a colossal $10 billion in damages, making it the most destructive and costly hurricane at the time.
Rare but powerful, Hugo was a Cape Verde-type hurricane. This is a variety of Atlantic hurricane arising near the Cape Verde Islands on Africa’s west coast. These are usually the largest and most forceful tropical storms because they have an abundance of warm, open ocean to feed their development before they strike land.
Originating as a tropical wave, Hurricane Hugo moved off of Africa’s west coast on September 9. Shortly afterwards, it was classified as Tropical Depression Eleven southeast of the Cape Verde Islands, where its winds were a mild 35 mph. Traveling westward, it steadily gained momentum, transforming into a tropical storm on September 11, and earning the name Hugo. Rapidly intensifying, Hugo reached hurricane strength and smashed through the Leeward Islands as a powerful Category 5 hurricane with 160 mph winds. Hugo was officially a major hurricane.
Slowly moving west-northwest, Hugo slightly diminished to a Category 4 hurricane. On September 17, Hugo passed between Guadeloupe and Montserrat with winds whirling at 140 mph, and hurricane-force gales spreading out only 45 miles from its center. Making landfall in Guadeloupe, it punished the island with 184 mph gusts, crushing 100 percent of the banana crop, 50 percent of the sugar cane crop and savaging most of the island’s coconut palms. It took Guadeloupe years to recover from these immense agricultural losses.
In less than 24 hours, Hugo made landfall on the Caribbean island of St. Croix with piledriver intensity. The storm’s winds now reached 160 mph, making it the most powerful hurricane to batter the Northeastern Caribbean, until Hurricane Luis pounded the area in September 1995.
Hugo attacked St. Croix with the most vicious assault of any location along its path. Its eyewall hit the island with Category 4,140 mph winds, and brutally violent gusts. Tornado-shaped cones whirled across the island, amidst the hurricane’s fury. A storm surge of 2-3 feet, capped by 20-23 foot waves, attacked the coast, compounding the devastation. On St. Croix, two people died, 80 were injured, and 90 percent of the buildings sustained damage or complete destruction. St. Croix’s wreckage added up to over $1 billion, and the island’s infrastructure was in ruins.
Hugo went on to slam Puerto Rico with fierce winds and intense rains, and also made landfall in Vieques and Fajardo. Puerto Rico sustained brutal damage, with banana and coffee crops nearly obliterated. Some people were electrocuted by fallen power lines and 28,000 people were rendered homeless by storm damages that surpassed $1 billion.
After traversing the rugged terrain of Puerto Rico’s northern section, Hugo’s strength diminished, and the hurricane seemed to struggle when re-entering the Western Atlantic’s warmer waters. Now only a strong Category 2 hurricane with winds sinking to 105 mph, not much attention was given to what the cyclone might do next. However, Hugo and its eventual destination in South Carolina were separated by the Gulf Stream, a very warm ocean current running from the Florida Straits to the Canadian Maritimes.
When Hugo hit the Gulf Stream it detonated, with winds bounding from 105 to 140 mph during a 12 to 24 hour period. Emergency personnel, who were expecting a strong Category 2 hurricane, now struggled to prepare for a ferocious Category 4 hurricane. Hugo slammed on shore in the coastal town of McClellanville, South Carolina, near Charleston, with a storm surge of more than 18 feet and winds churning at 140 mph.
Across South Carolina, Hugo’s 150-mile wide swath of merciless power produced horrific destruction. Enormous tides coupled with fierce winds rammed bridges off their pilings, left yachts stranded on highways and collapsed television broadcast towers. The state’s forests experienced a loss of over 6 billion board feet of timber, more than three times the loss suffered from the volcanic eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980. Forestry experts were taken aback by the immense volume of dead trees. A minimum of the uprooted and shattered trees were harvestable, hiking the economic losses of timber to more than $1 billion. The number of trees demolished could have provided enough timber to build 660,000 homes.
Hugo’s wrath was also unleashed upon North Carolina in 29 counties, most of which were deemed federal disaster areas. When the storm’s center churned over Charlotte, it lashed the area with wind gusts topping 85 mph. Trees smashed into houses, cars and power lines, and utility poles fractured like toothpicks. Eighty thousand trees – many of which were more than 70 years old – fell victim to Hugo. Ninety-eight percent of Charlotte’s citizens lost power, some for over two weeks. Power outages were also responsible for causing vast amounts of raw sewage to flow past treatment plants and into streams all over Mecklenburg County. Charlotte, North Carolina’s biggest metropolitan area, had been conquered by Hugo.
Hugo is ranked as one of the most ruthless natural disasters to assault the United States. A rarity among hurricanes, Hugo didn’t lose its clout when it arrived at the coast, but instead hurtled inland with feverish intensity. Prior to Hugo’s visit, the residents of Charlotte, which is 150 miles inland, believed their location protected them from hurricanes. Most assumed that tropical hurricanes were solely coastal events, but Hugo violently and destructively demonstrated that it was a rare and deadly exception.
By September 25, 1989 – more than two weeks after its fateful inception – Hurricane Hugo had finally dissipated, but not before its remnants had cut a swath of property damage, toppled trees, flooding, power outages and ruined crops through the mid-Atlantic states, New England, Canada, and finally, Newfoundland. Hugo’s horrific rampage had, at long last, reached its end.