30 YEARS LATER: Hurricane Hugo by the numbers

30 YEARS LATER: Hurricane Hugo by the numbers
Hurricane Hugo (Source: WMBF)

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Sept. 22 marks 30 years since Hurricane Hugo blasted the Carolinas.

Hugo was one of the strongest hurricanes in South Carolina’s history, and at the time the most costly hurricane ever in the U.S. The storm was responsible for at least 86 fatalities and caused at least $8 to $10 billion in damage.


Hugo originated from a cluster of storms that moved off the African coast on Sept. 9, 1989. By the morning of Sept. 10, the system was classified as a tropical depression. Hugo gradually strengthened as it moved across the warm waters of the Atlantic and became a hurricane on Sept. 14. By the next day, Hugo strengthened into a rare category 5 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds near 160 mph. Hugo was so powerful that a crew from the NOAA Hurricane Hunters nearly crashed into the Atlantic while investigating the hurricane.

Hugo weakened to a category 4 hurricane on Sept. 16 as it aimed at the Leeward Islands of Guadeloupe and Montserrat. Hugo blasted St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands early in the morning of Sept. 18 before slamming through Puerto Rico. The airport in San Juan registered wind gusts up to 92 mph, with 120 mph gusts measured at the former Roosevelt Roads Naval Station.

Passage over the mountains of Puerto Rico caused Hugo to weaken and the winds fell to 105 mph.

Hugo became better organized as it crossed the Gulf Stream between the Bahamas and S.C. The hurricane strengthened and a large eye appeared.

As it approached the S.C. coast during the evening of Sept. 21, maximum sustained winds increased to 140 mph, again making the storm a category 4. Landfall occurred at midnight of Sept. 22, 1989, near Sullivan’s Island.


A 20-foot storm surge at the coast and hurricane-force wind gusts observed 200 miles inland, Hugo delivered severe impacts to both South and North Carolina. For many Hugo became the storm of a generation.

The following reports were gathered from the National Weather Service following Hugo.

Mt. Pleasant and Awendaw, S.C.: Ground zero for Hugo’s landfall on the South Carolina coast, Mt. Pleasant suffered heavy wind damage to structures and trees. Roads were impassible due to the volume of debris. Multiple fishing boats were sunk in Shem Creek. Bulls Bay just north of Mt. Pleasant was the site of the highest presumed storm surge, up to 20 feet based on debris marks noted after the storm. In Awendaw the storm surge reached 19.4 feet, and the U.S. 17 bridge across Awendaw Creek was destroyed. Hugo still holds the record for the highest storm surge ever observed on the east coast of the U.S. Wing gusts reached 140 mph.

McClellanville, S.C.: McClellanville was severely impacted by Hugo’s wind and storm surge. Many homes and businesses were destroyed, and the storm surge carried boats from the rivers and marshes across highways and left them haphazardly strewn around. Lincoln High School in McClellanville was selected as an emergency evacuation shelter due to maps indicating an elevation of 20 feet above sea level. The actual elevation was only 10 feet above sea level, meaning Hugo’s 16 foot storm surge swept 6 feet of seawater into the school gynmasium full of evacuees. Wind gusts reached 130 mph.

Hurricane Hugo
Hurricane Hugo (Source: WMBF)

Charleston, S.C.: Water crashed over the historic seawall in downtown Charleston and flooded the first floor of homes. Up to 80 percent of roofs in the city of Charleston were damaged. Over 100 buildings suffered heavy structural damage or completely collapsed. A million-dollar crane at the Port of Charleston was destroyed. Wind gusts reached 110 mph.

Francis Marion National Forest, S.C.: Approximately three-quarters of the trees in the 250,000 acre national forest were blown down, many sheared off at a height of 10 to 25 feet above ground. A USDA Forest Service report issued on October 5, 1989 estimated 700 to 1000 million board feet of timber was lost, but up to 250 million board feet was hoped to be salvaged over the coming years. The endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers lost much of their habitat in the Francis Marion National Forest. Wind gusts reached 130 mph.

Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island, S.C.: An 11 foot storm surge destroyed the Isle of Palms fishing pier and many of the beachfront homes. The Wild Dunes golf course was damaged by erosion, and a large section of the Ben Sawyer Bridge over to Sullivan’s Island was damaged. Newspaper reports indicate every building on Isle of Palms and neighboring Sullivan’s Island suffered at least some damage from Hugo. Mayor Carmen Bunch and SC Governor Carroll Campbell placed the island under martial law. Sullivan’s Island experienced water 13 feet above mean sea level, and many of the older homes east of Marshall Avenue were destroyed. Wind gusts reached 120 mph.

Georgetown, S.C.: Severe storm surge flooding occurred in the historic downtown area. A sailboat that had been anchored in the Sampit River ended up stranded next to the Georgetown Rice Museum. Both the Georgetown Landing and Belle Isle marinas were destroyed. Numerous homes were damaged and destroyed by falling trees. Wind gusts near Georgetown reached 108 mph.

Hurricane Hugo
Hurricane Hugo (Source: WMBF)

Pawley’s Island, S.C.: Hugo’s surge cut the island in two, carving out a new inlet described in two different news sources as 20 feet or 100 feet wide. At least 14 homes were destroyed, and three homes were carried off by surging water and dropped in the tidal creek behind the island.

Garden City, S.C.: Although the worst of Hugo’s wind remained just south of Garden City a tremendous storm surge wiped out up to 90 percent of homes and undermined beachfront hotels and condos. In newspaper reports published on Sept. 23, 1989, Horry County Administrator M. L. Love said “Garden City for all practical purposes is gone.” The city’s pier was destroyed, and roads three blocks inland were covered with sand. The surge was estimated at 13 feet above sea level, with evidence of damage from seawater flooding as far as 1,500 feet inland.

Surfside Beach, S.C.: On Ocean Boulevard sand and mud was 10 inches deep after the storm with tree and building debris littering the streets. The Surfside Fishing pier was destroyed. Surge height was estimated at 13 feet above sea level.

Myrtle Beach, S.C.: Hotels and homes on the beachfront were heavily damaged and the bulk of the protective sand dunes were washed away. Springmaid Pier was reduced to only 150 feet in length with two other piers in Myrtle Beach destroyed by the combination of storm surge and large crashing waves. Newspaper reports said Ocean Boulevard was covered by sand and several feet of water in the North Myrtle Beach area. About 150 wooden beach access walkways were destroyed.

Berkeley and Dorchester counties, S.C.: Eight fatalities attributed to Hugo occurred in Berkeley County, with a tremendous number of homes destroyed and 17,000 residents homeless after the storm. Over 70 percent of trees in the county were knocked down. Neighboring Dorchester County also suffered damage to a large number of homes, businesses and churches.

Hugo (Source: WMBF)

Orangeburg and Clarendon counties, S.C.: Large-scale damage occurred to agricultural interests. Particularly hard hit were peaches, soybeans, cotton, pecans, and pine plantation forests. In Clarendon County, a total of 28,000 residents were homeless after Hugo with damage reported to 70 percent of homes.

Sumter County, S.C.: One fatality occurred in a mobile home, with nearly a thousand homes damaged and over 200 destroyed. Tremendous damage to trees was observed.

Florence County, S.C.: Roofs were destroyed in downtown Florence, with damage reported to hotels and apartment buildings around the county. A very large number of trees were knocked down.

Columbia and Lexington, S.C.: Hurricane-force winds damaged many buildings and knocked trees down throughout the area.

Lee and Kershaw counties, S.C.: High winds broke windows and downed many trees.

York and Chesterfield counties, S.C.: Over 1,500 homes were damaged or destroyed in Chesterfield county along with heavy losses to the turkey industry. One fatality was reported in York county. Widespread damage occurred to local peach orchards, plus cotton, sorghum and soybean crops.

Charlotte, N.C.: This city was forever changed by Hugo, which was still packing hurricane-force wind gusts nearly 200 miles from the ocean. Countless trees crashed into homes and fell across power lines, creating widespread and long-lasting power outages. Newspaper reports indicated 85 percent of homes and businesses in Charlotte were without power after the storm. Downtown skyscrapers in Charlotte had large windows blown out by winds, raining debris into the streets below. Hugo was responsible for three fatalities in the Charlotte area where winds reached 99 mph.

North Carolina Western Piedmont and Foothills: Hugo finally weakened below hurricane strength as it accelerated northward between Hickory and Morganton during the morning of Sept. 22, 1989. Wind gusts reached hurricane-force and blew down millions of trees from Gastonia and Lincolnton through Hickory and the remainder of the North Carolina foothills. One apple grower in Wilkes County lost 4000 trees to high winds. Widespread power outages lasted weeks in some remote locations.

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