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In the eye
of the hurricane

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

 

In the eye of the hurricane


Photo -- NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center.

Perspective view of Hurricane Hugo on 21 September 1989 at 14:44 EDT by GOES-7 (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites), as the hurricane approaches Charleston, South Carolina. Image produced by F. Hasler, K. Palaniappan, M. Manyin, and H. Pierce (NASA/Goddard).


By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times staff writer
©St. Petersburg Times, published June 10, 1990

In September 1989, one of the costliest storms in U.S. history cut a devastating swath through the Carolinas. This is the story of Hurricane Hugo -- and some of the people whose lives it affected.

Part one of four

Jim McFadden had been on dozens of hurricane research missions. There was nothing to suggest that this mission, or this hurricane, would be anything out of the ordinary.

They had left Barbados at noon that Friday, in gorgeous weather. A veteran meteorologist, McFadden worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There were 16 others aboard, most of them NOAA scientists and employees. Their goal: To fly into this, the eighth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, and do experiments on its strength and motion.

A hundred miles out. The air was clear and smooth. Far to the northeast, they could see a mass of clouds.

An hour later. The Lockheed Orion droned, uneventfully, through a band of rain. They were on the fringes of the hurricane. But it seemed to be a weak one -- even as they approached the eyewall, the area of heaviest wind and rain, the skies were relatively clear.

On their first pass, they planned to penetrate the eye at 10,000 feet. But there was another plane at that altitude, an Air Force C-130 on a routine hurricane tracking mission. Two planes are not allowed to fly at the same altitude in bad weather. The Orion headed into the clouds at just 1,500 feet above sea level.

It was a terrible, and terrifying, mistake.

Suddenly, the wind shot from 50 mph to 165 mph, more than twice the hurricane threshold. In one violent, heart-stopping motion, the Orion was hurled upward, the force so great McFadden and the others felt pinned to their seats. A second later, a downdraft jerked them from 1,500 to 700 feet.

The sensation was like plummeting on a roller coaster three times as high as any on earth.

It was then that the #3 engine stopped.

There seemed to be something wrong with #4 engine as well.

No one said a word. Just a few hundred feet below, the waves were as tall as an eight-story building.

This is it, thought McFadden. I'm going to die.


Times photo by FRED VICTORIN

Jim McFadden, meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


Like many great hurricanes, it had begun as a cluster of thunderstorms moving off the northwest coast of Africa. Most of these weather systems quickly break up: About one in 10, for reasons that science still struggles to understand, begin the series of changes that ultimately produce one of nature's most awesome phenomena.

In the early morning hours of Sept. 10, 1989, an employee in the government's Satellite Analysis Branch in Washington, D.C., was making a routine check of photographs from the Meteostat weather satellite. Far off in the eastern Atlantic, 4,000 miles from the U.S. coast, he noticed an area of clouds that appeared to be developing the counterclockwise motion typical of tropical storms.

At 4 a.m. the phone rang at the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables.

"SAB called at 8:45 (Greenwich Mean Time)," meteorologist Lixon Avila noted on a form. "They are classifying a system at 12.5 N, 20 W."

It was the birth certificate of one of the most powerful hurricanes in history.

By the time it blew itself out over eastern Canada two weeks later, Hurricane Hugo had killed 49 and injured hundreds of others. It had left entire islands in ruin, turned half the state of South Carolina into a disaster area and caused more damage than any other hurricane on record.

Today, 10 days into the start of a new hurricane season, it still disrupts the lives of tens of thousands of people. And experts say it may have marked the start of a period of intense hurricane activity in the eastern United States -- a cycle of catastrophic storms that could affect millions of residents, especially in Florida.

But on this, a quiet Sunday morning, it was nothing but a band of clouds on a satellite photograph.

At 11:29 a.m., the hurricane center got a second call, from the Air Force Global Weather Center in Nebraska. They, too, reported that a weather system appeared to be organizing in the easternmost Atlantic.

An hour and a half later, forecasters officially began to track Tropical Depression #11.

Drawing energy from the warm ocean water -- to a tropical storm what gas is to a car -- the depression quickly developed winds of 35 mph. On Sept. 11, it was upgraded to tropical storm status and given the name Hugo. On Sept. 13, its winds estimated at 75 mph, it became the year's sixth hurricane.

While the storm was far from land, the hurricane center could get by with data from a weather satellite orbiting far overhead. But by Thursday, Sept. 14, Hugo was moving close enough to the Windward Islands -- 350 miles away -- that the center requested an Air Force reconnaissance flight to get a better fix on strength and location.

Jim McFadden's team decided to have a look, too.

* * *

Severe turbulence was jerking the Orion in every direction as McFadden made his way to the flight deck. There, he and the pilots -- struggling with the controls -- did a quick damage assessment.

It was not reassuring.

The inboard engine on the right side had quit. On the engine next to it, a strip of rubber had come loose from the propeller and was flapping in the wind. They worried that if it came off, it might be sucked into the engine and knock that one out, too.

Toward the back of the plane, radar engineer Terry Schricter sat pale and shaking. A fuel line had ruptured, and a jet of flame had shot directly past his window.

"Oh, my God," McFadden heard him say.

Contrary to what satellite data had shown, Hugo was not a minimal Category 1 hurricane but a rare Category 5. Forecasters had estimated its central pressure -- generally the most reliable indicator of strength -- at 948 millibars. In fact, it was 918 millibars, enough to put it among the most 10 powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record. And the Orion had just flown through the most violent part.

Now the crew was trying to get to a higher altitude. The Orion was extremely heavy -- it had left Barbados with 58,000 pounds of fuel, enough for a 10-hour mission, and most of that was still aboard. It had lost a fourth of its engine power. And even under the best of circumstances, it would have been difficult to climb in the warm, dense air in the eye of a hurricane.

They began dumping fuel. And circling. Dumping more fuel. And circling. 1,500 feet. 2,000 feet. It took forever, it seemed, to get any height.

Below them, the ocean was a maelstrom. To the sides, they could see the blue-white clouds of the eyewall, soaring thousands of feet and gradually sloping away from them, like the walls of a giant stadium. Above them, the sky was a clear, gorgeous blue and the sunlight was pouring in.

It was terrifying. It was also one of the most beautiful things McFadden had ever seen.

For more than an hour, the plane spiraled slowly upward. At 9,000 feet they found a weak area of the eyewall and flew through. It was as easy as that. The exit was as smooth as the entry had been rough.

An hour later, they landed in Barbados. McFadden and the crew went over the plane inch by inch. The torn piece of rubber had disappeared from the propeller but apart from that they couldn't find any damage. Not a dent. Not a wrinkle. Even the engine failure was mechanical, not weather-related.

Hugo had spared the Orion and the 17 aboard.

Few others in its path would be so lucky.

8 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 19

As he did every Tuesday, Charleston, S.C., Mayor Joseph A. Riley Jr. sat down with his staff for their weekly meeting. Today, their minds were on islands hundreds of miles away.

Montserrat. Hurricane Hugo had almost leveled the tiny British colony. An estimated 99 percent of the population was homeless.

St. Croix. Law and order had disappeared in Hugo's aftermath. Armed looters roamed the streets as tourists hid indoors.

Puerto Rico. Hugo had cut power to more than half of the island's residents. More than 50,000 people had lost their homes.

After leaving Puerto Rico, Hugo had weakened considerably. It was now a Category 2 hurricane, with peak winds of 109 mph. But it was on a path that had brought dozens of other hurricanes to Charleston over the past three centuries. Riley had an uneasy feeling.

To most outsiders, the name "Charleston" still evoked images of horse-drawn carriages and moss-draped oaks, of stately homes and a genteel lifestyle that had taken dozens of calamities in stride.

But as Riley and his staff well knew, the greater Charleston area was typical of many booming coastal regions. A major hurricane had not hit for 30 years. Since then, thousands of people had settled on the narrow barrier islands, building restaurants and condominiums and expensive houses within feet of the Atlantic Ocean. Thousand more had moved into new developments along the Cooper and the Ashley, the broad rivers that hug Charleston and meet at the tip of the low-lying peninsula on which it sits.

The road network hadn't kept pace with the growth, and Riley wondered how all of those people would get out -- and where they would go -- if a big storm hit. Even a mid-range Category 3 hurricane, with tides nine to 12 feet above normal, could put more than a third of the county's 350,000 residents under water. It would take at least 24 hours to evacuate them all.

After the meeting, Riley summoned the city's media relations director, Barbara Vaughn. He wanted to know about other places that had been struck by hurricanes in recent years. What preparations had they made? What lessons had they learned?

"Let's call around," Riley said.

Vaughn called New Orleans, Galveston, and Wrightsville Beach, N.C. Her assistant called Miami, Houston and Corpus Christi. From each city came the same warning: Early evacuation is critical.

People will die if they don't get out early.

Make the message strong and repeat it. Often.

4 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 19

After years of debate, Isle of Palms residents were finally voting on whether they wanted another bridge to the mainland. It was pure coincidence that election day fell as a hurricane approached.

Even a rabbit has two ways out, Bill Kulseth thought. He went to the city recreation center and marked his ballot "yes."

Isle of Palms had been hit by many a storm but for most of its history no one was around to care. A skinny barrier island 10 miles north of Charleston, it had remained largely undeveloped until just after World War II. Then a fellow named J.C. Long bought much of the island for $150,000, put up some houses and sold them to veterans for $250 down and $150 a month.

The island grew steadily, acquiring a small shopping center and a couple of real estate offices by the time Kulseth discovered it in 1969. A Navy cook, he had been transferred to Charleston on submarine duty. The area wasn't bad for single people, and he especially liked the wide beaches and relative seclusion of Isle of Palms.

In 1970 Kulseth moved to the island. Three years later, as he was about to get out of the service, he and a friend rented half of a building right on the oceanfront. They added a bar, named it the Windjammer and brought in live entertainment. Before long it had become one of the most popular nightspots in the Charleston area, drawing large crowds from Easter though Labor Day.

In 1978 the island enjoyed a second spurt of growth with the opening of the Wild Dunes golf and tennis cub. Suddenly Isle of Palms was a fashionable resort. And Kulseth's business did even better. So good, in fact, that he and his partner had recently spent $150,000 on an extensive remodeling that included a big deck overlooking the Atlantic.

The island's future growth, though, was threatened by the type of feuding known to many beachfront communities. Its 6,500 residents were divided into two camps -- those who generally opposed growth and those, like Kulseth, whose livelihood depended on it. A major sparring point was the new bridge.

On summer afternoons, traffic backed up for miles as beach-goers tried to get off the island the only way they could -- via a causeway to Sullivans Island, then over the Ben Sawyer drawbridge to Mount Pleasant and the mainland. The state wanted to build a second bridge, linking Isle of Palms directly to the mainland.

Opponents claimed a new bridge would bring more traffic and crime. Those in favor argued that residents needed a second escape route in event of emergency.

The turnout was unusually heavy. The bridge passed by 45 votes.

Isle of Palms Residents would have another way off in a hurricane -- as long as it didn't hit before 1992.

Noon Wed., Sept. 20

It was sunny as Mayor Riley went before a throng of reporters. Hugo was still 700 miles away and the latest advisories predicted landfall anywhere from north Florida to North Carolina.

Riley knew he was taking a gamble. First elected in 1975, the 47-year-old lawyer was an exceedingly popular mayor. But evacuation was costly and inconvenient. Riley knew the risk in urging people to leave while Hugo's path was so uncertain. No other elected official was willing to join him.

So Riley went on the air alone. And as the other cities had advised, he made the message strong.

This hurricane was a killer, Riley said. There was was a very good chance that it would strike Charleston, or somewhere close, and if it did, it would be South Carolina's worst disaster this century.

There would be severe flooding. A wall of water eight, 10 maybe, 15 feet high would inundate low-lying areas. People in one-story houses would drown. Now, while the weather was good and the hurricane was far away, now was the time to board up and get out.

It worked.

Within an hour, residents were jamming hardware stores and supermarkets. Traffic on roads leading out of town began to swell, long before rush hour.

3 p.m. Wed., Sept. 20

From a distance, it's easy to spot the offices of the National Hurricane Center. It's on the sixth floor of a commercial building in Coral Gables, Fla. and its windows are the only ones equipped with hurricane shutters. Director Bob Sheets figured the center would get a commendation for setting such a good example -- instead city officials made it get a variance before installing them.

Through the early years of this century, hurricane forecasting was less a science than an afterthought. It was handled by the weather bureau in Washington, D.C., which had little first-hand experience with hurricanes and seemingly less interest.

In 1900, a hurricane killed more than 6,000 in Galveston, Texas -- the worst natural disaster in U.S history -- with no evidence that a formal warning had ever been issued.

In 1926, the first official word that a hurricane was about to strike Miami came at 11 p.m., after most residents had gone to bed. Hurricane-force winds battered the city less than two hours later, killing at least 250.

And in 1934, again in luckless Galveston, residents sought confirmation that a hurricane was brewing in the Gulf.

"Forecaster unavailable," came the telegraphed reply. "On golf course."

In 1935 the primary hurricane forecasting responsibility was moved to Jacksonville, and in 1943 to Miami. Eleven years later, the Miami office was designated the National Hurricane Center. It is responsible for tracking all tropical cyclones in the Atlantic and the eastern Pacific: From May 15 to Nov. 30, the peak hurricane period, a specialist is on duty 24 hours a day.

It's an impressive operation. But it's still an inexact science, which is why, for the past day, Sheets and his colleagues had been trying to figure out exactly where on the U.S. coast Hugo might hit.

They'd watched data spit out of computers, studied satellite maps and Air Force reconnaissance photos, even pulled out old hurricane charts in an effort to plot Hugo's course. The charts simply confirmed that hurricanes were wildly unpredictable. Some on Hugo's path had gone through South Florida, some into Central Florida, some had done loopity-loops and some had gone all the way into the Carolinas. That meant that everyone from Tampa Bay to Cape Hatteras, N.C. -- almost 13-million people -- was in potential peril.

For those at the hurricane center, now came the toughest part of the job.

The center couldn't order evacuations. All it could do was give local emergency management officials the best information on which to base their decisions. No one wanted to needlessly rout people from their homes. But no one wanted to lull residents into a false sense of security, either.

It was time to take the first big step.

At 3:30 p.m., the forecast office in Columbia, S.C. called the directors of emergency management for the states of North and South Carolina. At the same time, Sheets called the directors in Florida and Georgia.

"If there's no change between now and 6 p.m., we're going to put up a watch," Sheets told them.

The watch would extend from St. Augustine to Cape Hatteras. It meant that hurricane conditions would likely threaten those areas within 36 hours.

Sheets asked that everyone hold the information until 5:45 p.m. Then they would release it simultaneously on radio and television.

That ought to keep a lot of rumors and mis-information from floating around, Sheets figured. The truth was sobering enough.

8 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 21

By the time Bill and Norma Kulseth awoke, Isle of Palms and the rest of the Charleston area were no longer under a hurricane watch. Now they were under a warning. Hurricane conditions were expected within 24 hours.

Norma Kulseth, a school teacher, had been through hurricanes before. In 1979, while she was still single, David had struck near the South Carolina-Georgia border. Her apartment had gotten some water in it, and the power was off for seven or eight days. She figured that was as bad as hurricanes got.

At school Wednesday morning, they'd joked about the storm. Then the announcement came -- there'd be no classes Thursday or Friday.

It made sense. It also made her a little angry. The kids were so excited they couldn't get anything done for the rest of the day.

Bill Kulseth had been in hurricanes, too, but this one made him more anxious than usual. David had struck at low tide, 90 miles down the coast. It now appeared Hugo might hit during the highest tide of the month, far closer to the Charleston area. Their home -- like many of those on the island -- was an older one built at ground level just a few blocks from the ocean.

On Wednesday, Kulseth boarded up the Windjammer and the house. That afternoon 7-year-old Will Kulseth came home from school crying.

"If you live on Sullivans Island or Isle of Palms," his teacher had said, "you're going to be wiped out."

The phones were dead by 9 p.m. All that night cars rolled off the island. At 7 a.m., South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell ordered a mandatory evacuation for Isle of Palms and other barrier islands.

Now, Norma Kulseth knew, it was time for them to go.

She found it hard to pack. First she called the Days Inn in Mount Pleasant and made a reservation. Then she cooked a turkey breast. Finally she got of changes of clothes for each of them. They wouldn't need more than that. By Saturday, at the latest, they'd be home cleaning up the yard.

As they were getting ready to drive off, she jumped out of the van. For some reason, she wasn't really sure why, she took a picture of their house. And the neighbor's.

She wondered if she would ever see them again.

6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 21

Isle of Palms had never looked so serene, police captain Jim Arnold thought. Except for him and a few others, there was not a soul left on the island. It had been a sunny afternoon, and Arnold had driven around with his video camera, filming the deserted streets and enjoying the ghostly calm.

After the mandatory evacuation order, police had gone door to door. They'd dragged one drunk out of an oceanfront condo and taken him to a shelter in Mount Pleasant. Two other men -- one on the intracoastal waterway, the other in the heart of the island -- refused to leave. Police made them fill out little tags for the body bags.

Maybe that'd scare them into going.

Arnold himself planned to stay, along with several other cops and Mayor Carmen Bunch. They were moving operations to the Lutheran Retreat, a two-story building owned by the church. There was an emergency generator, the place had plenty of beds and the owner of the Red and White grocery store had given them a key.

"Just take what you need," he said.

The news at 6 p.m. surprised them. After two days of little change, Hugo had strengthened. The National Hurricane Center had just upgraded it from category 2, a moderate hurricane, to category 4, an extremely dangerous one. Maximum sustained winds were now 135 mph.

Arnold and the others weren't concerned. The retreat, they figured, could withstand winds of 170 mph.

It was around 6 when the clouds and rain began to move in. A little after 7, Arnold got his video camera and drove to the beach. The sky was low and mean, and waves washed over the end of the fishing pier, foaming around the little bait house.

Suddenly, the bait house was gone. Blown away. The wind was so strong Arnold had to grab the railing to keep from going over.

He went back to the retreat. The mayor didn't want to evacuate. She had lived here 44 years, and next to her children and grandchildren, Isle of Palms was the most important thing in her life.

8 p.m. The Charleston County Emergency Operations Center called. The storm surge was expected to be five to nine feet. The retreat was 10 feet above sea level.

9 p.m. The power was off. The wind had risen dramatically, and they could see awnings and shingles and strips of aluminum cart-wheeling down the street. Houses were starting to come apart.

10 p.m. The phone rang. It was the police on Sullivans Island. They had planned to stay in an old Civil War bunker, built in a sand dune far back from the ocean. The water was already two feet deep, and the worst wasn't due for another two hours.

"We're evacuating to Mount Pleasant," the caller said.

The mayor still wouldn't leave. Arnold and Jim Meade, the acting police chief, went outside. The wind kept lifting the police boat off its trailer and they had to tie it down. It was all they could do to stand up. Debris was flying everywhere.

Something's going to kill me, Arnold thought.

At 10:30, the bulletin came over the radio:

"The National Weather Service has issued a storm surge update. It appears that the storm surge will be greater than anticipated. It is now expected to reach a height of 17 to 21 feet."

Seventeen to 21 feet. That was twice what anyone had thought. Here they were in a building 10 feet above sea level -- what sea level used to be -- and the Atlantic Ocean seemed to be lifting up into one dark, monstrous wave, higher and longer than the entire island.

Arnold looked at Meade. Meade looked at Arnold.

"Mom didn't raise an idiot," Arnold said.

They were leaving. And they were taking the mayor with them, even if they had to handcuff her and throw her in the back seat. This time she didn't argue.

They put on life preservers and headed into the night. Arnold and Meade would lead the way in the pickup, towing the trailer and the police boat. The other four cars would follow as closely as possible. It was blowing so hard the rain was in horizontal sheets.

They crept across the causeway and through Sullivans Island. They couldn't go more than 5 or 6 mph. Even at that, the cars kept sliding off the road. They could barely see each other's lights. Every eight seconds they did a radio check:

"503 to 520."

"503, got you in sight."

They were on the approach to the Ben Sawyer Bridge. Arnold could see the trees bent double, the wind and water screaming through them. Never had he heard anything so loud. He stuck his head out the window and shone his spotlight down to make sure they were still on the road. Rain drenched the cab but they kept the windows open. They didn't want to fall into the intracoastal in a closed truck.

Now they were on the bridge. They could feel it swaying and straining. The wind slammed them against the girders.

"If we go over, here's a rope." Arnold was shouting but Meade could barely hear him.

They hit something, almost like a speed bump. The pavement seemed higher here. The Sullivans Island police had noticed it too -- the bridge and the roadbed seemed to be at different levels.

As the last car crossed, the driver thought he heard the sound of metal, twisting and grinding and breaking behind him. But the full force of the hurricane was almost upon them, and it was impossible to tell.

The important thing was, they had made it across. For them, the worst was over.

For tens of thousands of others, it was just the beginning.

* * *

Part Two: The water was almost up to his neck as Thomas Williams pushed the last of his children through the hole in the ceiling.

Deputy Managing Editor Susan Taylor Martin was on the Times' national reporting staff when this series was written. She was in South Carolina in September 1989 when Hurricane Hugo hit, and made three subsequent trips to the Carolinas to do interviews and research for this series.

This project was edited by Neville Green, who is now Managing Editor/Tampa.


© Copyright 1998 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.