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Interview with Charleston Mayor Joe Riley

Joe Riley, Mayor of Charleston, SC, shared his memories for the 20th Anniversary of Hugo in 2009, along with some important lessons learned and reminders about being prepared for the next storm! Check out the full interview.

 

Summary

Hurricane Hugo was a Cape Verde hurricane that became a Category 5 (on the Saffir-Simpson Scale) storm in the Atlantic, then raked the northeast Caribbean as a Category 4 storm before turning northwest between an upper-level high pressure system to the north and upper-level low pressure system to the south. Hugo made landfall just north of Charleston, SC at Sullivan's Island around midnight September 22, 1989 as a Category 4 storm with estimated maximum sustained winds of 135-140 mph and a minimum central pressure of 934 mb (27.58 inches of Hg). Hugo produced tremendous wind and storm surge damage along the coast and even produced hurricane force wind gusts all the way into western North Carolina. In fact, Hugo produced the highest storm tide heights ever recorded along the U.S. East Coast. At the time, Hurricane Hugo was the strongest storm to strike the United States in the previous 20-year period. The hurricane was also the nation's costliest in terms of monetary losses with approximately $7 billion in damage. It is estimated that there were 49 deaths directly related to the storm, 26 of which occurred in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Hurricane Hugo track map

Hurricane Hugo's Track
(credit: NOAA National Hurricane Center)

Upper level air patterns.

Upper-Level Weather Pattern
(credit: Jon Nese-Penn State Univ.)


Impacts

Most buildings in downtown Charleston sustained significant damage, but the worst destruction occurred closer to the landfall in beach towns north of Charleston such as Sullivan's Island and the Isle of Palms where the majority of homes were rendered uninhabitable. Many old trees were toppled by Hugo's winds, including those at Drayton Hall in West Ashley (image 1 / image 2 - images courtesy of Drayton Hall). Major logging operations in the Francis Marion National Forest were permanently ended due to the storm felling more than 1 billion board-feet of lumber (approximately 70% of lumber-quality trees). As you can see from this image, most of the tree damage occurred along and to the right of Hugo's track.


Fortunately, Hugo made landfall just north of Charleston, as a track slightly farther south would have produced tremendous flooding in downtown Charleston. This can clearly be seen in the images below. In addition, the relatively fast motion of Hugo diminished the amount of erosion along the coast. The South Carolina Emergency Management Division estimated that if a storm with a similar track and intensity as Hugo struck in 2009 there would be $8 billion in damage in the state with more than 21,000 homes destroyed.

Hypothetical storm surge visualization.
(Credit: NOAA Coastal Services Center)
Hypothetical storm surge visualization zoom map.
(Credit: NOAA Coastal Services Center)

 

Meteorological Stats

Wind Gusts (mph)

Hugo wind swath map.
(Credit: NOAA National Weather Service)

Charleston, SC (Naval Station): 137
Charleston, SC (Custom House): 108
North Charleston, SC (Airport): 98

Storm Tides (feet above MSL)

Hugo storm surge map
(Credit: NOAA National Weather Service)

Bulls Bay, SC: 19.8
Isle of Palms, SC: 15.0
Sullivan's Island, SC: 13.0
Folly Beach, SC: 11.9
Charleston, SC (Custom House): 10.4

Rainfall (inches) 

Hugo rainfall map
(Credit: Weather Prediction Center)

Edisto Island, SC: 10.28
Mount Pleasant, SC: 8.10
Savannah, GA: 6.10
North Charleston, SC (Airport): 5.90

 


Meteorological & Technological Advancements Since 1989

 

Radars
The National Weather Service was using a network of WSR-57 and WSR-74 radars in 1989. Today, the NWS utilizes the WSR-88D network of doppler radars, which have the advantage of providing wind speed and direction data. This information is crucial to the hurricane forecaster as the storm nears land to help make a determination of the storm's maximum winds and structure.

Satellites
There are many more satellites today than there were back in 1989, all of which include much more sophisticated equipment to monitor and measure the atmosphere, particularly winds and moisture. Microwave satellite imagery, which can "see" through clouds, is now utilized by hurricane forecasters to ascertain information on a tropical cyclone's structure. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the parent agency of the NWS, currently operates more than 15 meteorological satellites.

Reconnaissance Aircraft
"Hurricane Hunters" regularly fly into potential and existing tropical cyclones to collect data in and near the storm to aid in hurricane forecasting, including information on storm size, structure, and development. Although such missions existed in 1989, their frequency and amount of data collected was not as great as it is today.

Hurricane Forecasting
Improvements in observing systems such as satellites, buoys, and aircraft reconnaissance, and upgrades to numerical weather prediction models have led to improvements in hurricane forecasting. For example, the National Hurricane Center's average 24-hour track error in 1989 was ~100 nautical miles compared to ~50 nautical miles as of 2013. This is significant when considering it costs ~$1 million to evacuate every mile of coastline.


Pictures

 

NOAA Photo Library
"The State" Newspaper's Photo Archive
 

Damage photo from Folly Beach SC
Damage at Folly Beach, SC
(Credit: McKevlins Surf Shop)
Damage photo from Isle of Palms SC.
Damage at Isle of Palms, SC
(Credit: The State Newspaper)
Hugo damage to Lincoln High School.
Damage to Lincoln High School in
McClellanville, SC. The school was
unfortunately being used as a storm shelter.
Damaged Ben Sawyer Bridge.
Damage to Ben Sawyer Bridge between
Mount Pleasant and Sullivan's Island, SC

(Credit: NOAA)


Additional Resources

 

Storm Summaries: National Hurricane CenterWeather Prediction Center

NWS Service Assessment

USACE/FEMA - Assessment

National Research Council Report

NWS SLOSH Model

NWS Coastal Services Center - Historical Tropical Cyclone Tracks

Tropical Cyclone History for Southeast South Carolina/Georgia

South Carolina State Climate Office - South Carolina Tropical Cyclones

Hurricane Preparedness Information