Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston in September of 1989. I had an apartment in the West Ashely part of town and had paid little heed to the incoming storm. It was not until the local newscaster practically screamed "Get Out Of Your Homes" at the camera that I took notice. It was far too late for me to make any preparations on my own, so I drove out to my folk's house on the island (one of the sea islands off of Charleston). I won't bother talkin' on the storm itself...it was a horrifying experience and we were lucky to come thru it fairly unscathed (uninjured, minimal damage to the house, one car destroyed by one of the 20 plus trees that were felled on their property). What I want to touch on briefly is what it was like AFTER the storm.
Hugo struck in the wee hours...and daylight brought to view an alien landscape. Nothing looked the same...and it never would again. The storm's winds snapped pine trees like toothpicks. Entire swaths of forest were mown down as though they were but sawgrass. The pines were hardly the only trees to succumb to the winds...stately oaks with a hundred plus years in their rings were brought down as well. Neighbor's homes were missing roofs...cars were smashed in driveways. Debris was strewn as far as the eye could see in every direction. It was eerily quiet that morning...it was the last time for weeks that it would be quiet during daylight hours. After that first morning, daylight was accompanied by the sounds of chainsaws, woodchippers, hammering, demolition, and clean-up. Gas powered generators could be heard day and night. There were dogs barking. Dogs actually were a bit of problem those first weeks...especially for bleeding hearts like those in my family. We fed 6-8 strays outdoors until they were 'found' or picked up by animal control. All roads on the island were blocked (or still underwater)..it was impossible to get anywhere other than on foot. That first day...all that could be done was to pull on work gloves, grab the chainsaws, and join the neighbors to begin clearing the roads.
The next night a tornado blew thru in the wake of the hurricane. In its way, it was more frightening that the Hurricane itself. It struck in the dark with no warning, catching everyone unawares. Some homes received more damage from the tornado than from Hugo. The skies were weird...the weather was weird...everything just felt 'off'.
I don't remember now how many days it took before access to Charleston was possible. In my mind it was WEEKS...in reality it was but a few days. We had no power, no water, no phone service (and this was before cell phones were a common possession). Even once the water was running again, it could only be used for showering. You could not drink it or cook with it because there were so many pine trees down in the reservoirs. It looked and smelled like turpentine. We had to stand on line daily for water...for ice. It was summer in the Lowcountry, hot as hell and thick with humidity, and the lines were long. At first, before the Government got there in full force, people were SELLING the water and ice at crazy prices. Same with generators...truckloads showed up early...300 dollar generators were being sold for 2-3 thousand or auctioned to the highest bidder. At that point in time there were no laws against price gouging. Because of Hugo, there now are (at least in SC). Immediately after the storm the looting began..it was not so bad on the island but North Charleston was hit rather hard. People sat on their porches with guns on their laps guarding their property...guarding their neighborhoods. The National Guard rolled in. Curfew was set. It was like living in another country.
I was 20 years old and had a habit that one does not feed in the light of day. The curfew was dawn to dusk and armed soldiers patrolled the streets. I became a 'stealth biker'...ducking and dodging local law and the National Guard...always alert for armed folks guarding that what was theirs. It still amazes me that it was easier to feed my habits than it was to get water/ice or 'freedom'. I guess I would liken it to how so many inmates become addicts IN prison even if they did not enter as one...that sort of thing always finds a way in.
Another thing that was exceedingly evident within the first few days...a lot of critters died. It reeked of death. There was no escaping it. The birds, snakes, squirrels, racoons, unfortunate outdoor pets, possums, you name it...critters died and then set to rot. To add to it were the fish and other water debris that got left behind when the storm surge retreated. It smelled of death for weeks. Inside. Outside. Did not matter where you were..you just sorta got used to it. Bees, wasps, hornets, yellowjackets were EVERYWHERE...all their nests had been disturbed and they were PISSED. Snakes were in places they usually weren't...and on the island 'snake' can mean something innocuous like a garter snake or rat snake...or it can mean rattlesnake, copperhead, or cottonmouth. Lots of cottonmouths.
For weeks, neighborhood streets were lined on both sides by a wall of debris 6ft tall (more in places). It was sorta like driving thru tunnels with openings for individual drive-ways. Even after power, phones, and water were restored...after roads were cleared and stores beginning to run normal hours again...it looked like a war zone. The clean-up took weeks..months. I did not stick around to see it through. I left the Lowcountry. Abandoned my apt still furnished (with a refrigerator full of rot). Just grabbed my personal items....some clothes....and left. It was the beginning of a very long rough stretch of my life...though, at the time, it was a relief. But, that, my friends...is a whole 'nother story.
So, I've spent the past couple days preppin' for Irene. Using lessons learned from Hugo to guide my actions. While Virginia Beach is smack in her path, I do not believe we will have near the disaster that Hugo wrought. Our home is on the Pungo Ridge...flooding is unlikely. We long ago had the pine trees that could have struck house or drive-way cleared from our property (I don't trust pine trees). We already own a small generator. I begin filling 2-liters with water at the beginning of every Hurricane season (using them to water plants/dogs at the end of the season) so, we already have plenty of drinking water stockpiled. Our cupboards are well stocked. All laundry is clean. All propane and unleaded gas tanks filled. Yard and exterior of house cleared of anything that might be picked up and launched by winds. Grass mowed extra short. All meds (for two-leggers AND four leggers) in supply. Fresh batteries in everything. Candles and flashlights in every room. Bucket in each bathroom to use pool water to flush (in case we lose water). The only habit I need to feed now requires a pair of running shoes (or blades)...so I am set there too. And, even though it has only been 20 years or so since Hugo struck, we are a more connected society. 'Help' will arrive more quickly...access via cell phones mean that everyone will be up to date/in the know...and the lessons learned from Hugo (and Andrew and Katrina) should benefit us.
Dunno why I am writing this. Is probably just as an outlet for stress relief. As I watch the news, read the blogs, and follow the Hurricane tracking charts...one thing has become quite clear to me.
The Hurricane itself does not scare me.
What can come after does.