A Big Storm Encountered in an Odd Place
Good news: Hurricane Irene didn't do as much damage as expected. Bad news: That fact, compounded by a couple of earlier anticlimaxes, could lull too many of us into a false sense of security - with potentially disastrous, Katrina-like results someday.
Though the experts are generally better at forecasting courses than intensities, hurricane prediction remains an inexact science at best. These mysterious monsters go spinning over water and land like a child's top across an uneven floor, and a chance wobble can send one off in surprising directions.
I lived for several years in Florida, where they're supposed to have hurricanes, but never came close to experiencing one there. Then, much later, danged if I didn't live through one where they're not generally supposed to happen.
The month was September 1989. The storm was Hugo, and the place was the lovely town of Salisbury, located smack in the geographic center of extra-wide North Carolina, way over above Charlotte and far from the beaten path that any self-respecting hurricane would normally consider following.
Hugo, a Category 5 at its peak, had already torn things up in the Caribbean, becoming the costliest hurricane ever in the Atlantic at that time. Then it roared ashore in Charleston, S.C., on the 22nd.
Hugo did a terribly destructive number on that beloved old city, which has never fully recovered to this day. Our good friends the Guerrys, who lived in Charleston, had fled before the storm and taken refuge in a house in the inland town of Moncks Corner. They and another couple cowered all night in a stairwell while the vicious wind howled outside, their ordeal illuminated by the blue flashes of transformers exploding all over town.
Then, rather than veering in a more northeasterly direction as expected, Hugo held stubbornly to its more northwesterly path, bulldozing straight across the interior sections of both Carolinas. Folks here in Moore County, I'm told, battened down the hatches and assumed the worst - but got outflanked on the left and had nothing but some rain.
Meanwhile, over in distant Rowan County to the west, Brenda and I and our toddler daughter Kate went to bed pretty much expecting no big deal. I remember waking up hearing what sounded like the proverbial freight train outside, accompanied by the groans and creaks of a roof that seemed as if it was about to go sailing away. I particularly remember the dim sight of powerful oak trees outside the window, thrashing and bending in the relentless wind like seaside palms.
The ground repeatedly shook from trees falling. One of them, as I discovered when I went out at first light, was a large pine that had crashed across our driveway, requiring me to go at it with a chain saw to free us from the prison our house had become.
There was a strange tropical smell in the air. Phones and power were out. As soon as we could, we set out on debris-strewn highways to check on my elderly mother, taking unaccustomed detours to avoid downed trees and power lines. Finally arriving at Mom's apartment, we found that she was doing fine. And because she got power back much -sooner than we did, we ended up moving in with her for several days.
During its frightful rampage, Hugo had killed 35 people in the Caribbean and 27 in South Carolina. It did particular violence to Charlotte, reached only six hours after that distant landfall. After passing through our county of Rowan, the storm continued doggedly on its path, not stopping until it had crashed against the Blue Ridge mountains, -dissipating its mighty power by -unleashing a torrent of floodwaters over a score of counties.
Historical footnote: Though Hugo was unusual, it was not unique. I once heard the late Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr., of Morganton, tell about the unnamed -hurricane that also came ashore at Charleston and followed a similar route. Its flooding washed away the entire mountain town of Mortimer, which was never rebuilt. (When carloads of out-of-town curiosity seekers came to gawk at the damage in Burke County, one of them was a young Concord woman named Margaret Bell - who ended up becoming Mrs. Ervin.)
I don't know how they reckoned the devastation wrought by that storm back then. But its later imitator, Hugo, inflicted damage estimated at $1 billion in North Carolina alone. These things are not to be messed with - or underestimated. I don't care if Irene didn't live up to her billing. Better overprepared than overconfident.
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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