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September 27, 2014

Last weekend the Spartanburg Herald-Journal carried an excellent piece by Susanne M. Schafer writing for the Associated Press. The article reminded all residents of South Carolina of “the devastation wrought by their worst storm in the past century – and to be ready in case another such tempest comes.”

Hurricane Hugo took aim at Charleston Harbor like a bull’s-eye twenty-five years ago on September 21, 1989. Landfall occurred just before midnight as a category four storm. The hurricane was thirty-five miles wide with winds in excess of one hundred and thirty-eight miles per hour. The coast north of Charleston was pounded by storm surges up to twenty feet above normal. Hugo wreaked havoc across the state, packing hurricane force winds into the Upstate.

Hugo left 60,000 people in the state homeless, 270,000 temporarily unemployed, and 54,000 state residents seeking disaster assistance. Many were without power for more than a month.

My brother Bill was pastor of Yeamans Park Presbyterian Church in Hanahan, South Carolina, just twenty miles north of Charleston. South Carolina Governor Carroll Campbell had ordered 250,000 people to evacuate the Charleston area on the morning of September 21. Bill apparently didn’t get the memo. He and a group of his church members rode out the storm in the basement of the home of one of the parishioners. He described the fury of the storm and then the eerie silence as the eye passed overhead. Some in the group stepped outside. Bill said in the middle of the eye there was stillness and a star-filled sky. Then the back edge of the storm approached. Back in the safety of the basement the group experienced a greater fury from Hugo than before. When Bill told me about the experience he said, “I’ll never do that again!”

Because Hugo remained a hurricane during its trip across the Palmetto state, towns inland from the coast reported widespread damage. Spartanburg experienced the results as motels and emergency shelters filled to capacity. It was a state-wide emergency that compelled many to take action.

I watched the video taken all along the South Carolina coast by a cameraman in Governor Carroll Campbell’s airplane. As the footage moved toward Charleston Harbor, I was especially interested to look for the Morris Island Lighthouse. At high tide, Morris Island is no more, but the 161-foot brick tower built in 1876 was still standing. That lighthouse became, for me, a symbol of the resilience of the people of our state.

Two days after the storm Bill was able to contact me by telephone. He was brief and to the point. “Kirk, I need three generators. One needs to be big enough to power the church fellowship hall. The other two can be smaller.”

Bill explained that there were no generators to be found in Charleston. I quickly discovered that there were no generators to be had anywhere.

Just the previous weekend I had attended a scouting event at Camp Bob Hardin in Saluda, North Carolina. I had seen three generators in the workshop. I made a call to the Scout Executive and to the Camp Ranger. Both agreed that I could get the generators but warned that none of the three was in working order.

I called Bobby Kingsmore, an expert in small engine repair and an employee of Spartan Automotive.

“Get the generators to me, and I’ll see what I can do,” Bobby offered.

I took a three-ton lumber truck to scout camp. The ranger had three volunteers and a front-end loader to help hoist the generators onto the truck bed. I drove straight to Spartan Automotive. Bobby and his crew used their equipment to wrangle the machines into the shop.

“When are you planning to take these to Charleston?” Bobby asked.

“Just as soon as they are ready to go.”

“Call me first thing tomorrow morning,” Bobby instructed.

The next morning I called Spartan Automotive. “You can pick them up,” Bobby said. “I’ve got all three of them running.”

Bobby Kingsmore had stayed at work all night long repairing those generators. And he wouldn’t let me pay him for his work.

“No, this is something I can do to help.”

When I remember Hugo, I think of people coming together to help each other. For Bobby Kingsmore and many others like him I am grateful.

When the generators arrived in Charleston, Bill had arranged for a crew from Alabama Power to connect the most powerful machine to the main electric line supplying the church fellowship hall.

For the next six weeks Bill and the members of Yeamans Park Presbyterian Church prepared three hot meals every day, feeding nearly four hundred people at each meal. Some of those who enjoyed the meals were the power company employees from Alabama.

One of the two smaller generators went to an African-American church in a ghetto area of Charleston that served meals to people in their neighborhood. The third generator went to the New Wappetaw Presbyterian Church in McClellanville, South Carolina, to provide food for one of the hardest hit communities.

It took days for state and federal emergency help to reach some inland areas. Had it not been for people like Bobby Kingsmore and these pastors the after effects of Hugo would have been worse.

About one week following Hurricane Hugo’s raging invasion, my brother-in-law Jule Hedden and I drove to Charleston in a panel truck loaded with sheeting plywood. My dad and my brother Bob donated the plywood, Jule and I volunteered to deliver the material.

We drove down I-26 East. From Columbia on we saw signs of the powerful storm. Tall loblolly pines do not withstand hurricane force winds very well. Acres of trees were twisted and broken. Closer to Charleston, we began to see more damage, much more. We spent the night in downtown Charleston. The city was completely dark even a week after the storm. We found a room at nice hotel illuminated by candlelight.

The following day we met Bill. Over coffee in the fellowship hall we heard story after story of the goodness and kindness of people toward each other. There were also a few tales of some grand rascals. The most important takeaway was how people had come together to help.

After unloading some of the plywood in Hanahan, Bill asked us to drive to McClellanville. We went to the Presbyterian Church. The high-water mark inside the church was halfway up the beautiful old stained glass windows. There were stories about parents standing on tables in the school cafeteria with children on their shoulders through the night with the rising water stopping just short of drowning many in the school.

When we started unloading the plywood in McClellanville, people came from everywhere. We saw plywood going out into the village and the shanties.

“Let them have it,” Bill said. “They really need it.”

When I remember Hugo, the thing that stands out in my mind is the tough and tenacious resilience of the people of the Palmetto State. One story, probable apocryphal, comes to mind.

The surge from the hurricane left an old man stranded on the metal roof of his farmhouse out in the pinewoods.  Somebody asked about the old man, and a few days later Red Cross workers decided to check on him.  They used a motorized johnboat to steer down the water-covered road through the pine trees to his house.

The Red Cross volunteers saw the old man perched on top of his of house, and they tried to get his attention.  One shouted, “We are from the Red Cross!”  The man could not understand what they were saying because he was hard of hearing.  They moved closer and shouted again, “We’re from the Red Cross!”

He shouted back, “It’s been pretty rough out here this year!  I don’t hardly see how I can give anything right now.”

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