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Hurricane Hugo: Stories from the storm
By Jason Lesley
Lost a house, but gained a boat
Dr. George Blaylock of Georgetown still has a big table made from a ship’s wheel that was in his family’s beach house at Pawleys Island when Hurricane Hugo hit. That’s about all he was able to save.
Blaylock said he and a neighbor took a trailer to Pawleys Island on the morning of the storm to remove furniture from the beachfront house on the south end of the island. They got the big ship’s wheel table into the trailer but had to leave its glass top behind. “It was supposed to be low tide,” he said, “but water was already coming across the road. The Highway Patrol stopped us and said we had to get off.”
When the storm passed, Blaylock was able to get back on the island but had to walk from the Pelican Inn. “As we were walking, it looked like the houses were in pretty good shape,” he said. “Ours wasn’t there any more. It was down in the water.”
The storm surge had cut through the island, leaving a new inlet 30 feet deep. The Blaylock house was partially submerged in the hole. Blaylock said they couldn’t cross the breach, so they went to Pawleys Island Supplies and bought a rubber boat and some clothesline to make a ferry.
“We got over to the house and saw it was off its pilings, but we got inside,” he said. “I found the glass table top covered in sand. It was broken. I got a few pictures and a few chairs. That’s really all.”
He said the Corps of Engineers crushed the house and filled the breach with sand. “The next high tide blew it out,” he said. “They brought some concrete from a demolition in Charleston and closed it that way.”
Blaylock said his mother rebuilt a bigger five-bedroom house two years later. It was the third house on the lot. The family’s original house was built in 1953 and was blown across the creek to the mainland by Hurricane Hazel the next year.
Blaylock benefitted in one way from Hurricane Hugo. A big sailboat broke loose from its mooring in Georgetown and went over the Harborwalk and into the back of the Rice Museum. Blaylock bought it. “It was kind of scuffed up,” he said. “We enjoyed it for years until lightning hit it just a few years ago and I ended up selling it.”
Passing out toe tags
A rescue squad volunteer, Brewster Buck said he was the last person off Pawleys Island before Hurricane Hugo struck 25 years ago and among the first back on the island after the storm.
There were some people determined to stay in their houses and ride out the storm, Buck said, and Midway Fire Chief Mike Mock sent rescue squad volunteers and firefighters door to door on the island to distribute toe tags. “We didn’t have mandatory evacuation in ’89,” Buck said, “so Chief Mock had us go over on the island and tell the people who wanted to stay to please put this body tag on their toe before you go to bed tonight so we’ll know who you are in the morning. This one old guy was like, ‘We’re not leaving.’ I said the chief had asked us to distribute the toe tags; he didn’t have to leave. That’s when his wife came out and said, ‘I told you we needed to leave.’”
Their house, Buck said, was swept into the creek by the storm surge.
Buck remembers another house in Pawleys Creek with furniture still perfectly in place, including a lamp on a table. Other houses were damaged to the point that the wreckage was threatening to pull the remainder of the house off its foundation. Buck Cox used a chainsaw to cut away part of one house to save the rest.
Hugo cut a channel through the island. The water pouring through the breech was 30 feet deep and nearly covered a house that had washed into it. “There were washers and dryers and everything else all out there,” Buck said. The Corps of Engineers filled it in within a week or so, covering over everything with sand.
Buck said he went to McClellanville and Awendaw days later. “The damage was 10 times worse,” he said. “They had a 20-foot storm surge and we only had 8.” Buck talked with a shrimper who had elected to stay on his boat and ride out the storm. “I knew I was in trouble,” he told Buck, “when I looked out and the top of the telephone poles went by.”
Community came together
Now the county’s chief magistrate, Isaac Pyatt was a deputy with the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office stationed at Pawleys Island when Hurricane Hugo struck.
He rode out the storm in a Red Cross shelter at Waccamaw Elementary School and returned to see the results of a natural disaster the next morning.
“At daylight we went out to do an assessment,” Pyatt said, “and the entire Waccamaw Neck was a complete wreck. Pawleys Island was devastated. It was something to experience to see how a storm could do so great a damage.”
Pyatt said members of the community helped each other through the tough times. “Everybody kind of pitched in and helped others,” he said. “They were very kind to law enforcement. They knew we were out there protecting property. The businesses that were open sent coffee and meals. The community came together.”
Riding out the storm
June Hora and Sister Peterkin didn’t leave Murrells Inlet for hurricanes.
“We always go across the highway somewhere,” June said.
When Hurricane Hugo began moving inland, the sisters went to the home of Ernestine Woodard behind Lee’s Inlet Kitchen to ride it out. “We got up once during the night to see the limbs,” June said. “The water had crossed the road and was within 50 feet of the house. When we got up the next morning, things were a mess.”
The women had taken their cars to an open field for safety, but they couldn’t drive anywhere. “Sister’s house had been wrecked but was still on the foundation,” June said, “but my house was off the foundation.” It had 16 inches of water inside.
June’s sons in Texas and Kentucky came to help but had to sneak past National Guardsmen to get into the inlet. “They were not letting anybody in,” she said, “not even my pastor. It was frightening.”
She said her sons got her back together as she stayed with her sister for a few months. She followed their advice to have a mover lift her house onto a new foundation rather than demolish it and build a new one on pilings. “Thank goodness,” June said. “I’m an old lady now and those steps would have bothered me.”
June said she was fortunate because her sister had just sold some timber and was able to loan her the money for the repairs until she got her insurance settlement. “I was able to get going before anybody else,” she said.
On the day she went to make her insurance claim, June said she pulled an old purse from a shelf — all her good purses had been lost. Her sister was alarmed to see her coming out of the insurance office with tears in her eyes, fearing her claim had been refused. “I was sitting in the insurance office and opened the purse up,” June said, “and there was a gold broach that had been my great-grandmother’s. I thought it washed out with the storm.”
Amidst the debris, ‘Home Sweet Home’
With Hurricane Hugo hovering off the South Carolina coast, Jane and Mickey Spillane left their home in Murrells Inlet to take her daughter to enroll at Stanford University.
They were in California when they got the news that their house was badly damaged. “We were told a boat was in our living room,” Jane Spillane said. “It was our boat.”
With the Myrtle Beach airport closed, the Spillanes flew to Charlotte and drove through miles of flattened timber along Hugo’s path. “Mickey said, ‘Oh, Lord, we’re facing something,’” Jane said.
Walls and doors had been ripped away from the writer’s house on the inlet, and the stench of sewage filled the air. The family cats were missing. “Everything from Garden City was sitting in our house,” Jane said. “One very funny thing — and I still have it — landed in our living room. It was a vase that said ‘Home Sweet Home.’ We just cracked up. The sad part were the things Mickey lost: first edition books, a manuscript, all the baby pictures and albums.”
Though the main house was knocked off its foundation, Mickey’s office was still on its stilts but standing precariously beside the wreckage. “People from his church and neighbors came to shore it up,” Jane said. “People were so fantastic, everybody pitching in. We didn’t sit around and feel sorry for ourselves waiting on the government to come. We pitched in, cleaned up yards.”
Jane said she took the loss much worse than her late husband. He told her they would build a bigger and better house with porches facing the water. “We lost junk,” he told his wife. “Now we’ll go get a lot of new junk.”
The Spillanes had to demolish their house and rebuild after winning a court settlement from their insurance company. “Mickey always had an attitude,” Jane said, “that when something bad happens you just move on.”
Even damaged, Pawleys as it was
Lee Brockington, a Pawleys Island Town Council member in 1989, recalls the last meeting before mandatory evacuation where most of the conversation dealt with re-entry after the storm, identifying residents and property owners, and avoiding “rubberneckers.”
Engaged to Bill Shehan, Santee Cooper’s area service representative in charge of the maintenance of the Waccamaw Neck, Brockington overheard a great deal of planning by the power company in regard to stockpiling poles, transformers and other equipment. Shehan and all other personnel from firefighters to law enforcement were on high alert early in the week.
The morning after Hugo she emerged from a house in Hagley, thumbed a ride to the North Causeway and was one of the first officials on the island to survey the damage. Taking notes, but not photographs, she like so many others simply stated, “It was like a war zone.” The tidal surge had destroyed or damaged houses, but there was another million-dollar loss. “It was as if the earth regurgitated the brand new sewer system. Years of planning, work and money wasted.”
Despite the changes wrought by the storm and rebuilding, Brockington feels Pawleys Island is still unique, still “as it was” because the islanders’ appreciation of the barrier island’s history and spirit prevails.
Cleanup effort breaks for wedding
Sam Hodge, the county emergency services director, was a firefighter with the Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire Department 25 years ago when Hurricane Hugo arrived.
After riding out the storm at Socastee High, Hodge and other firefighters had to cut pine trees off Highway 707 to get back to their fire station. It had little damage, he said, except for a radio tower that was blown over before they left. The first call they got was from Gov. Carroll Campbell asking them to check on his house at Garden City. Hodge said he rode over the tops of houses on Atlantic Avenue to reach the point and the governor’s beach house. It was missing a few shingles. “Gov. Campbell showed up a few days later to have lunch with us and thank us,” Hodge said.
He remembers how dark and quiet the neighborhood was on nights following the storm. “That was an eerie feeling,” he said. A little Honda generator provided electricity for the fire station for 45 days in a row. Once it was turned off, it wouldn’t start again. The Honda salesman gave the firemen a new one so he could send theirs to be examined at the factory.
Hodge said things are so different today. After Hugo, the Corps of Engineers would bulldoze damaged houses and firemen would burn the rubble. That’s forbidden today.
Hodge said he remembers neighbors donating canned goods for people in need. A couple by the name of Hammond came from Socastee for three weeks to help clean up and cook for volunteers. A food distributor sent a refrigeration truck to the fire station to hold food salvaged from restaurants. Using the propane from tanks washed into the marsh, firefighters cooked steaks, fish and shrimp for weeks. “The food in the restaurant coolers was still good. We’d get it and pack it into the 18-wheeler. We ate good,” Hodge said.
Within two weeks, electricity had been restored to the church where Hodge and his fiancee Tonya had been planning their wedding. The ceremony went on as planned with about 100 extra guests that included emergency volunteers. “We still have the nut tray the Hammonds gave us as a wedding gift,” Hodge said.
Wildlife preserve on the front line
Hurricane Hugo hit South Island about as hard as any place in Georgetown County, and chief biologist Bob Joyner made sure everyone evacuated.
Employees put trucks in open fields away from pine trees likely to fall. A front-end loader and dump trucks were moved to wildlife openings near the ferry to be in place to clear the island’s roads. Joyner hauled a boat with him to the state wildlife office on Fraser Street in Georgetown, knowing the ferry on the Intracoastal Waterway was likely to be out of commission. Trucks loaded with chain saws, gas and oil were driven off the island until the storm passed.
Once Hugo had passed, Joyner had his wife, Cornelia, call their empty house at the Yawkey compound. If the call went through, the house had not been flooded, he reasoned. The phone rang, so she called Bob Lumpkin’s house at Esterville Plantation. His son, Bob Jr., had just walked in to see the interior of the house covered in leaves and debris. “He said the phone rang and it about scared him to death,” Joyner said. “We asked him what he thought about South Island, and he said, ‘I wouldn’t give you a nickel for anything left on South Island.’”
The Joyners made their way back to the ferry landing at the end of South Island Road and used their boat to go around by the bay. They waded through knee-deep water to reach the house. “We had the dogs with us,” Joyner said, “and went around to the front door because it was the only one not boarded up, and those dogs sat down in the driveway and began howling like crazy. I thought that was the weirdest thing. They knew something was bad wrong.”
Joyner suggested to his wife that she go to Lake City and help her mother until things returned to normal on South Island. “I told her we were going to be without electricity for a long time,” he said. “I think I can live here without electricity, and I’m pretty sure you can too, but I’m not sure we can live here together without electricity.”
She stayed to begin cleaning up and help feed volunteers from the Department of Natural Resources who came to clear the roads. They would start the day with a big breakfast and clean out the freezers for a night meal.
“That was a whole new experience,” Joyner said. “I really appreciate those fellows coming down to help us, but I was worried that they hadn’t operated a chain saw very much. They had chaps for their legs, ear muffs and visors and all that. Right after Hugo it was 90-something degrees and the humidity was 100. You put on all that stuff, you couldn’t last 30 minutes. They ended up operating in T-shirts and long britches. That was it. The biggest commodity we needed was corn starch because everybody got crotch burn from sweating. You had to have that corn starch to be able to walk. We added corn starch to our evacuation checklist.”
We would also like to hear from other readers with stories from Hurricane Hugo. You can send them here.
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