Charleston remembers Hurricane Hugo 20 years later

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Twenty years ago on Sept 21, 1989, Hurricane Hugo's winds blew their way into the history books of South Carolinians as the category 4 storm made landfall in Charleston.

While 21 people died as a result of the storm's wrath, those in Hugo's wake had to do everything in their power to make sure it could not have been worse.

Linda Lombard was a Charleston County Council member. It was what she said before the storm that probably saved more lives than she knows of. "Please, leave now," were her words to those in the storm's path.

Lombard is now a bond court judge.

"We had to evacuate the county or we would have had massive loss of life and we knew that," said Lombard.

Lombard says that speech was carefully crafted.

"We prepared it and went over it and over it and over it," said Lombard. "Yes, just to pick the right words to try to encourage people to move right away."

There was a reason why certain words were picked.

"The night before Hugo, the governor had not yet declared a state of emergency, so we could not demand that people leave," said Lombard. "We could only ask them."

Charleston mayor Joe Riley was dealing with people who had not experienced a major hurricane in decades.

His concerns then and now are the same. The effects of a storm surge on the peninsula and the barrier islands could be catastrophic.

"It's a wall of water," said Riley. "And if you're in there and it's over you, you're gone."

To send a message, Riley ordered city hall be boarded up days before the storm. He also asked gulf coast mayors for advice they never got when they went through the same thing.

"You have to strike a balance between fear and panic," said Riley. "You have to convince people their lives are at stake."

They had to be firm and forceful even if meant evacuating hundreds of thousands of people from a storm that never came -- a huge political risk for both leaders, but one they took without hesitation.

The words were crafted: Leave as soon as you can," said Riley. "But everyone remembers, 'leave now, you must leave now' as though it were an order."

That was an order the Pickett family of Mt. Pleasant refused to take. They'd survived hurricanes before and knew they could survive this one.

The views from Colonel Bayard Pickett's home are breathtaking, but his location on Charleston Harbor proved to be dangerous spot for Hugo's furry.

While the rest of the lowcountry tried to escape to higher ground or check-in to well fortified shelters, the retired marine decided to stay put in his old village home.

"I was hearing from the news," said Pickett. "I knew it could be a three, but no higher."

Hugo made landfall around midnight as a category 4 gusting winds up to 140 miles per hour.

Pickett and his grandson marveled at a video of their family from that night. The colonel says the video brought back vivid memories for him.

"Where we're standing, I remember when some of the pier head hit the side of the house and I realized then that maybe I made a mistake," said Pickett."

Water from the storm surge proved to be another concern that fateful night.

"The water came up one, two, three to the fourth step, then it went underneath the house through the other side," said Pickett.

Now that time has gone by, it appears Pickett would have chosen a much different path if he had the chance again.

"I realized the next morning that I should have left, but by the time we decided, it was too late," said Pickett.

When the next storm blows in, Pickett will be ready, thanks to Hugo.

"If it's a two, we'll stay," said Pickett. "But when it gets to three and four, I want to be gone."

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