By Mimi Wood, Island Eye News Staff Writer
Having lived on Isle of Palms since 1968, Judy and “Pez” Pezanowski had heard their fair share of hurricane warnings. Consequently, they took reports of the impending storm, Hugo, in their stride; packed for their vacation and left as planned. While they did encounter a bit of a backup crossing the Ben Sawyer on September 20, 1989, they thought little of it. Just another false alarm.
The following evening, in Dickson City, Pennsylvania, they sat in disbelief, watching their beloved hometown on the national news. At 2:30 a.m., upon hearing a reporter say, “Isle of Palms is no more,” Judy went to bed.
The reporter’s bird’s eye view of the island from a helicopter showed nothing but the pine trees that had fallen all over the houses. So, while his initial impression was mistaken, he certainly he wasn’t too far off the mark.
“Unrecognizable” was one adjective used to describe the island in the days immediately after the storm; another was “pre-historic.”
Bill Casey choked up as he recounted the “generosity of strangers from afar” in the aftermath of Hugo. Bill was the first speaker of several on Tuesday evening, May 10, 2016 at the fourth in a series of IOP History Events being put on by the City’s Recreation Department. Despite a couple of competing activities, not the least which was the first turtle release of 2016, the History of Hugo was well attended by long-time islanders, newcomers and members of City Council, including Mayor Cronin, Jimmy Ward and Jimmy Carroll.
Expecting a mandatory evacuation, Brenda Smith, proprietress of The Sea Biscuit, settled in at Boone Hall with her friends, intending to see the storm through with a “Hurricane Party.” They soon realized there was nothing festive about Hugo. “It was absolutely terrifying,” recounted Smith, “I was as scared as I’ve ever been.”
“The walls of the house moved in and out, and it seemed as though the roof was going to explode off the top, as the walls ‘exhaled’,” recalled Norma Jean Page, Director of The Rec. describing the sensation of the house ‘breathing.’ Other islanders nodded in confirmation.
More than one person remembered the eerie experience of going outside as Hugo’s eye passed over, looking up, and seeing nothing but a clear, still sky, full of brightly blazing stars.
Back to reality, Casey recalled the caravan of tractor trailers and emergency response vehicles heading towards IOP all the way from Ocean City, NJ. Closer to home, he offered gratitude to Chip Campsen, whose family has operated the fleet of boats to Ft. Sumter since 1964, including
The Spirit of Charleston, who, miraculously, ended up on the marsh in Yellow House Creek, basically unharmed.
Campsen recounted how his father George was one of the first people back on the island, as it was only accessible by boat.
The Ben Sawyer was useless, nearly perpendicular in the Intracoastal. Captain George provided complimentary shuttle service back and forth for weeks, operating out of the Marina, at 41st Avenue.
When other tour operators began to run shuttles, they took advantage of the situation, charging displaced islanders exorbitant prices to come and go. Price gouging became such a problem that the local news station sent an investigative reporter to cover the story.
Humorous in retrospect, the reporter stood right in front of Campsen’s fleet as he delivered his report, insinuating culpability, much to the consternation of the only businessman ethical and compassionate enough to be providing rides for a paltry $3 per person.
Casey recalled the top two safety concerns were “propane tanks and snakes” propane tanks, as they were potentially leaking; snakes, because everything had been uprooted.
And snakes there were; snakes, snakes and more snakes. “You didn’t go anywhere without your snake boots,” mused Terrye Campsen Seckinger, who had a water moccasin residing on her front porch. Her recollection of “the sound of generators and buzz saws, from the crack of dawn until twilight, for a year” was met with an audible murmur of acknowledgment from the audience.
The total lack of electrical power, and therefore complete darkness at night, surely added to the initial sense of desolation.
But listening to the stories, there was infinitely more hope than desolation. “Hugo was a leveling agent,” no pun intended. Brenda Smith spoke eloquently about “how everyone was in the same boat; no one was better than anyone else. Everyone pitched in to help everyone.”
Neighbors met neighbors they hadn’t previously known; churches came together and formed an ecumenical council that still meets today. ECCO, the East Cooper Community Outreach, was formed as a result of Hugo. “The camaraderie was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” noted Pez Pezanowski.
In December, nearly three months to the day post-Hugo, there was another experience unlike any the island had ever witnessed: it snowed. Real snow.
Seven inches, enough to drape the makeshift dump at Ocean Park Plaza, across from Harris Teeter, in a blanket of white, and camouflage the destruction, at least for a couple of days.
For those determined, resilient residents who lived through it, Hugo has become the definitive marker of time. Across the board, survivors describe events in their life as “before Hugo and after Hugo,” reminisced Smith.
“Preparedness,” emphasized Page, “cannot be overstated. It’s easy to become complacent. Those who have not lived through a disaster such as Hugo can’t begin to imagine the profound effect an event of that magnitude has upon your life.”