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Hugo: A view from the front row

September 21, 2009


By Michael S. Smith II
A former copy editor and features writer for the Charleston Mercury newspaper, Mr. Smith is an SCHotline contributing editor.

On September 22, 1989, I, then age 8, had what some might call a front row seat for the main event: Hurricane Hugo making landfall on the East Coast where two rivers named Ashley and Cooper meet to form the Atlantic Ocean just south of the Holy City.

At the time, my family lived at 2 Water Street, a house that overlooks high battery from the corner of East Bay and Water streets, the latter of which proved aptly-named when the “wall of water” Hugo tossed up from Charleston Harbor flooded it and many other streets situated below Broad and east of King streets.

During the morning of September 22, Mother Nature kept secret from Carolinians the Category 5 hurricane that was creeping ever closer to our shores. There was not a cloud in the sky when I joined my father for a last trip by Elegant Rags, our family’s women’s casual wear store located on King Street in what’s often now called the antiques district.

I remember thinking how all of the plywood strewn across the facades of structures throughout the city would eventually make for some great skateboard ramp materials as we made our way to the store. Days after the storm, a photographer from Greensboro, N.C.’s daily snapped a shot of me while I was skateboarding in our concrete covered back yard, a sheet of plywood laid on the steps leading up to our pool deck as a makeshift ramp. That photo graced the paper’s cover a day or so later. Coincidentally, my Aunt Sue and Uncle John Middleton, who my mother, brother, and I would leave Charleston to stay with for a week soon after the storm passed, lived in Greensboro.

I also remember sensing in others a new feeling that day. It was a feeling expressed by the quiet yet anxious focus — on what I wasn’t fully certain — that was apparent on the faces of every adult I saw that day, everyone but my 6 foot 5 inches-tall giant of a father who was, in hindsight, obviously trying to allay my and my mother’s concerns about whether a fairly late-made decision to remain in Charleston for the storm was the right choice. >>More

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