After Hugo: A Stronger Charleston

We didn’t pay that much attention to tropical storms back then.

They made for dramatic presentations for the weather guys, but no hurricane in living memory had substantially impacted us in South Carolina. 
During that third week of September 30 years ago in 1989, there had been some increased attention on the tropics as a big storm named Hugo had just plowed over Puerto Rico, with the first images of the devastation headlining the nightly news that evening.
The storm they said was a powerful hurricane, and was taking aim at the eastern seaboard.

“Tough news for Florida” we thought.

Homes on the East Battery in Charleston as storm surge waves from Hurricane Hugo crest over the seawall

Asking my family about hurricanes was like asking about the Eisenhowers.

“Well there was Hazel back in ’54 – and then Gracie just a few years later.”
The last major hurricane to directly impact South Carolina occurred when my parents were children.

We were not prepared

By Thursday morning everything had changed – Hugo had become a monster, and was taking aim right at us.

I experienced my first panic run on a grocery store, scoring the last piece of bread in Winn Dixie: a little loaf of melba toast.
Early on we joked about having a charcuterie plate during the storm. This was okay we thought, all just an abundance of precaution.
After all, we were a hundred miles inland at the time, and it was unthinkable to experience much worse than an extended power outage.

Charleston though – we were worried about Charleston.
In hindsight, we should have been just as worried about ourselves.

The local news that evening had transformed into a veritable emergency action center.
They were going to stay on the air as long as they could, because the storm looked to be heading inland toward us.
A couple hours later we were in the dark, huddled around candlelight with the steady voice of the local weatherman on a battery-powered FM radio. 
We had absolutely no sense for the events that were to unfold during those next hours, or that the lights would not be coming back on for nearly a month.

The Storm

Among the new things I experienced that night: A pine tree snapping in half sounds like a shotgun blast.
When your roof is being sucked upward into a vortex, you can hear and feel the strain throughout the house. 
The eye of the hurricane is real phenomena you can experience as the storm just stops, then intensely begins again. 
Tornadoes do in fact sound like a roaring train.

Hurricane Hugo made landfall in South Carolina on September 21, 1989 as a powerful Category 4 hurricane, with sustained winds of 140 mph and pushing a brutal storm surge onto shore.

The eye of the storm passed over Sullivan’s Island before raging through Mount Pleasant, then passed directly over and devastating the shores of Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion, then into Sumter County where we were hunkered.
Hugo maintained its hurricane status across the entire state of South Carolina, clipping the capital city of Columbia before slamming into Charlotte, causing unprecedented inland damage.
No part of South Carolina escaped unscathed by Hugo, with the most intense damage mangling the Lowcountry from Beaufort and Charleston up to Myrtle Beach.
Further inland thousands of tornadoes were spawned by the storm, leaving entire forests of pine trees snapped and leveled.

The barrier islands – Folly Beach, Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms, Edisto Beach, and Dewees Island – suffered catastrophic devastation as thousands of homes and buildings were destroyed or damaged by the gusting winds and storm surge.


Downtown Charleston was completely inundated by the storm surge and many historic structures were terribly damaged by the gusting winds.

The small fishing village of McClellanville north of Charleston was perhaps the hardest hit, where the storm surge reached almost 20 feet high and submerged most of the town.

Design Smarter

A lot of people were asking these questions on the morning of September 22, and the ultimate result was a substantial reworking of building codes, safety awareness, infrastructure hardening, and a general ethos that we would never be caught with our pants down like this ever again.

All told, Hurricane Hugo destroyed or damaged nearly 80,000 homes and caused an estimated $7 billion of damage (about $15 billion today).
It instantly became the most powerful hurricane to ever hit the United States.
Entire cities were unreachable.
28,000 people were left homeless.
The timber industry was decimated.
The beaches were mutilated.

Once the dust settled, South Carolina became a different place because of Hugo – and for all the right reasons.

Building Codes

South Carolina enhanced its building codes and standards to encourage new homes and businesses to be constructed in ways that strengthen their resiliency during major storms, including the adoption of stricter building codes and the bolstering of standards for elevating structures in flood-prone areas.

Structural Reinforcements

All homes built in South Carolina now require a number of elements designed to fortify the structure so that it can better withstand tropical storm forces.
Among the most significant include:

Roof straps secure the roof to the walls and foundation to resist the uplift forces during high winds. These are typically steel or aluminum devices adhering the roof structure to the top plates of the wall framing. Furthermore the wall framing must be properly anchored to the foundation. For older homes there are retrofit options

Doors and windows must be protected from impacts by airborne debris. There are variety of options of here, the most straightforward being the installation of impact-rated windows. A common alternative to impact windows is plywood panels cut to fit each window and door, typically provided by the builder during new construction. 

Hurricane roof strap
roof straps
Workers boarding up windows on a home
window panels

Flood Elevation

In the aftermath of Hugo, Charleston County went a step further than the NFIP Guidelines to require that any new home must be built two feet higher than the required minimum. This was a significant and forward thinking decision with regards to the effects of climate change.

The state also encourages homeowners and businesses of older properties to elevate their existing structures, often with mitigation assistance in the form of low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration.

» For more details on flood insurance in Charleston, visit:
» Flood Insurance Guide.

Flood Insurance Map for a part of Sullivan's Island
flood zone map
A home in Charleston that is elevated a few feet above ground level
elevated construction


All told the damage to the infrastructure throughout South Carolina was around $5.9 billion. To recover and improve its infrastructure after Hugo, South Carolina undertook several building projects with the help of federal assistance from various agencies, including FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Infrastructure planning now includes setbacks for flood hazards and steering crucial infrastructure out of hazard areas.

Flood Management

These building projects not only helped South Carolina recover from Hugo, but also enhanced the resilience of its infrastructure to future storms.

Storm drainage systems in urban areas have been expanded and improved to more effectively move floodwaters out of the city into the waterways after a storm, and to prevent flood intrusion during the storm.

Stormwater retention ponds in suburban areas have been widely implemented to store excess rainfall to naturally replenish the water table while minimizing street flooding.

Stormwater rushing into a storm drain
storm drain
A stormwater retention pond with a fountain surrounded by residential homes
stormwater retention pond

Roads and Bridges

Standards for roads and streets in South Carolina were improved to reduce the risk of flooding and erosion that would otherwise render those paths impassable. This is particularly important for hurricane evacuation routes.
The state widened and elevated many roads, such as Highway 17 in Georgetown County, to enhance safety and ensure accessibility even during a substantial storm surge.

Bridges in South Carolina are now constructed to withstand hurricane force winds and our many existing bridges have also been inspected in this regard, often leading to strengthening or entirely replacing older structures.

The Ben Sawyer Bridge connecting Mount Pleasant to Sullivan's Island
Ben Sawyer Bridge
The Ravenel Bridge with the sun setting behind it
Ravenel Bridge


Restoring and protecting the natural habitats and ecosystems, such as planting trees to prevent soil erosion and provide shade and oxygen, preserving wetlands that act as natural buffers against storm surge and flooding, and creating buffer zones that limit development near sensitive areas such as beaches, marshes, and rivers. These actions help to enhance the environmental quality and biodiversity of the region, as well as provide recreational and educational opportunities for residents and visitors. The Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission manages over 11,000 acres of parkland that offer various amenities and programs for the public. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources also oversees several wildlife management areas, heritage preserves, and marine resources in the county.

Beach Renourishment

Beach renourishment to restore the barrier islands eroded by the storm surge. Since Hurricane Hugo, 41 beach renourishment projects have been conducted in South Carolina, compared to 14 before the storm.

Emergency Preparedness

Improving the emergency preparedness and evacuation plans, such as using contraflow lanes to facilitate traffic flow out of the coastal areas. Contraflow lanes are lanes that are temporarily reversed to allow traffic to move in the opposite direction of their normal flow. This strategy roughly doubles the number of lanes available for evacuation traffic and reduces congestion and travel time. Contraflow lanes are activated by using crossover sections, barriers, signs, and police officers to direct traffic to the reversed lanes and block incoming traffic. The South Carolina Emergency Operations Plan (SCEOP) provides guidelines for implementing contraflow lanes on Interstate Highways 26, 95, 20, and 77 during hurricane evacuations. The SCEOP also outlines the roles and responsibilities of different state and local agencies in issuing timely warnings through various media channels and the SC Emergency Manager mobile app, and coordinating with state and federal agencies to activate resources and request assistance.

The state also developed disaster preparedness plans and conducted public education campaigns to increase awareness and readiness among citizens.

An aerial photo of Interstate 26 with all its lanes moving the in same direction

Economic Diversity

Promoting economic recovery and diversification, such as supporting small businesses that were affected by the storm through loans, grants, tax incentives, and technical assistance. These initiatives help to stimulate growth and innovation in various sectors such as tourism, agriculture, education, health care, manufacturing, and technology. The Charleston County Economic Development Department works with local partners to attract new businesses and retain existing ones in the county. The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce also provides advocacy, networking, training, and resources for its members.

Further Reading

Disaster Resilience: 20 Years After Hugo 
(South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium)

Hurricane Hugo 30th Anniversary: A Look Back
(South Carolina Department of Natural Resources)

A Look Back at Hurricane Hugo
(Charleston County Public Library)