Long before the epic disaster that was Katrina, before the destruction of Wilma and the surprise of Andrew, Hurricane Hugo ushered in the modern era of powerful storms striking intensely developed coastlines, 20 years ago this month.
About once every generation a storm comes along that reminds Americans how vulnerable our shores can be. The nation’s worst natural disaster was the hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas, in 1900, killing at least 6,000 people in the course of a few hours. In 1935, what we now would call a Category 5 storm struck the upper Florida Keys on Labor Day, submerging a camp in which a large group of World War I veterans were housed while they built the Overseas Highway in a Great Depression public works program. Around 400 civilians and veterans died. Camille was the next Category 5 storm to strike the American mainland when it rolled into the Gulf Coast east of New Orleans in 1969. Its swath of destruction was eerily reprised when Katrina’s storm surge swamped the Mississippi shore four years ago.
The two decades after Camille brought much more development along the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines and in the Caribbean. It also was a quiet time for hurricane activity. Experts worried that many of the new residents and tourists who began frequenting the region’s beaches had no experience with hurricanes, and might display a common and often fatal tendency to want to witness one first-hand.
I became interested in meteorology as a teenager. I grew up reading about hurricanes, hoping against all odds that a super storm would somehow find its way to The Bronx. The closest I came was the soggy mess of downgraded Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972. It stalled a couple of hundred miles west of me, inundating towns like Corning and Elmira, N.Y., but without doing much damage in the New York City area.
There was no hope of a tropical storm striking Montana when I went to college there, but my meteorological education was furthered by a friend who lived in New Orleans when Camille came through. Though the city was spared the worst of Camille, he described how he huddled with his parents in the family car, parked in their garage, as the shrieking winds threatened to tear the roof off their house. He depicted a night of pure terror.
Time and parenthood change us. By the time Hugo tore through the Caribbean and approached the southeastern states, my wife and I had a 3-year-old daughter. We were going to drive to Virginia Beach, where the water stays warm well into the fall, for the weekend of Sept. 23 and 24, 1989. But Hugo was forecast to make landfall someplace in the Carolinas and move northward up the coast, which would be much too close for safety. We decided to drive to Toronto and spend the weekend in Canada instead.
Reception on the car’s AM radio was good that night as we drove through upstate New York. We listened to a station in Charlotte, N.C., whose reporter was on the line from Charleston, S.C., as the storm’s eye approached. A 20-foot storm surge swept onto the coastline, while winds well above 100 miles an hour buffeted the city. Along Interstate 95, many miles from the coast, a 40-mile stretch of forest stood stripped and crooked after Hugo passed through. South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell later estimated that his state lost enough timber to build homes for every family in West Virginia.
The storm did not hug the coastline as had been forecast. It traveled almost due north from Charleston and passed over Charlotte, a city at the base of the Blue Ridge whose residents do not normally worry about hurricanes. Sustained winds of 69 mph with gusts to 87 mph did extensive damage in Charlotte.
Hugo next traversed the Appalachians, weakening as it went but still bringing flooding rains to places that were not expecting it. It emerged near the Great Lakes, produced its last of about 110 total fatalities by dropping a tree onto a motorist near Buffalo, N.Y., and swirled across Lake Ontario — right into Toronto.
We were near the shore that day as the spinning dark cloud mass scudded across the lake. There was not much left of Hugo by that point, but I suppose I got my long-awaited super hurricane after all. And America got its refresher course in hurricane preparedness.
The long quiet period for hurricanes continued until 1995, though Andrew in 1992 reminded us that even a single storm in a quiet year can produce great destruction. The Atlantic hurricane records have practically been rewritten since then, with a series of busy years and powerful cyclones that continued through Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005.
The years since 2005 have been quiet again, though the jury is still out on 2009. It will be a long time before people forget what we have learned about respecting nature’s most powerful storms. But many will, inevitably, forget, until some future storm arrives to educate a new generation.