COLUMBIA, S.C. — Before Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Andrew in 1992, there was Hugo.
The Category 4 hurricane some 20 years ago was the most devastating storm to ever hit the East Coast.
Hugo’s death toll topped 100; it left 100,000 homeless and inflicted $10 billion in damages ($17 billion in 2009 dollars).
But there was a silver lining: Hugo is credited as the catalyst for today’s mammoth Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief response capability across the United States.
Hugo had already killed more than 50 people and caused $3 billion in damage in the Caribbean when it made landfall at Isle of Palms, S.C., on the night of Sept. 21, 1989. Then-South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell had ordered an evacuation of the state’s coast; historic downtown Charleston suffered extensive damage, as did Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach and Garden City. Hugo hit at high tide, creating a 12-14-foot storm surge. Utility poles bent at 45-degree angles. Ocean Boulevard in Surfside Beach was buried with four feet of sand.
But Hugo was not finished.
After inflicting heavy damage on North Carolina’s beaches in Brunswick County and the Outer Banks, Hugo marched on to Charlotte — still as a Category 3 hurricane. Charlotte — 200 miles inland from the Atlantic — was clobbered with 105 mph winds. Power was cut, trees were downed, and schools were closed for two weeks.
South Carolina’s Francis Marion and Sumter National Forests were devastated to the extent that Campbell said the state had lost enough lumber “to frame a home for every family in the state of West Virginia.”
Cliff Satterwhite, today the South Carolina Baptist Convention’s disaster relief director, recalled, “After the eye came through Sumter National Forest, which was 80 miles inland, you could drive miles and miles and see trees cut off at 10 feet and up.”
Mickey Caison, adult volunteer mobilization team leader for the North American Mission Board in Alpharetta, Ga., was a 40-year-old pastor at Providence Baptist Church in the small hamlet of Macedonia, S.C., the night Hugo came roaring through.
“As the hurricane came in, we were in the eye of the storm 12-15 minutes,” Caison recounted. “At Macedonia, we were on the edge of the Francis Marion National Forest. Over 290,000 acres of trees were destroyed that night, about 80 percent. In the days afterward, they used everything from mules to helicopters to get the timber to the mills.”
Satterwhite, now 61 with 35 years’ service with the South Carolina convention in Columbia, was assigned to disaster relief the day after Hugo.
“South Carolina didn’t even have a disaster relief ministry in 1989 when Hugo hit. Hugo changed the landscape for everybody. They said, ‘We have a storm and you’re it,’” Satterwhite said, referring to his sudden assignment as the state’s disaster relief coordinator. Satterwhite would spend the next six weeks in a Columbia disaster command post, working 18 hours a day.
“Other state conventions had disaster relief but not South Carolina. We had zero units.”
In support of the state, 13 feeding units representing 11 state conventions — Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi and Kentucky — descended on South Carolina after Hugo. Most affected areas were isolated due to the thousands of downed trees. Before they were through, the other states’ feeding units would crank out 265,000 meals to feed Hugo victims.
Satterwhite said South Carolina went from zero units at the time of Hugo in 1989 to 129 units today — including three feeding units that can dole out 15,000 meals a day, as well as units for chainsaw work, recovery, mud-out, repair, showers, laundry, command centers, medical and communications.
Training for disaster relief volunteers in 1989 was spotty at best, Satterwhite said.
“Back then, people would throw a chain saw in the back of a pickup truck and take off for the coast — totally untrained, not knowing what to do but willing to help someone. Today, we wouldn’t think of a chainsaw team going out without hardhats, chaps and goggles. No one wore that stuff back then. We were flying by the seat of our pants during Hugo. A lot of DR work was unofficial.”
Post-Hugo disaster relief was focused in the Charleston area because that’s where the national media coverage was, Satterwhite said. “We concentrated on Charleston with five feeding units, and we used fish cookers, not the nice units with tilt skillets and convection ovens we have today.
“Today, South Carolina has 6,800 trained volunteers for disaster relief, and next to North Carolina, we have one of the largest fleets of units,” Satterwhite said.
Caison agreed that Hugo was pivotal in the development of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, calling the hurricane “a major benchmark.” Caison himself was so moved by the unprecedented Southern Baptist response to Hugo that he left his pastorate and went into SBC disaster relief full-time.
“It was a large disaster and attracted a lot of media coverage. The next major DR benchmark event was Hurricane Andrew in 1992, followed by the Mississippi floods in 1993, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, 9/11 and, of course, Katrina in 2005. But Hugo was the first and because of it, we’ve become more focused and specialized in our disaster relief ministry.”
Caison said disaster relief operations now exist in all 42 SBC state conventions, with 90,000 trained volunteers nationwide and more than 2,000 units overall.
“We’ve grown not only in size but in strength,” Caison said. “We have a deep commitment and passion for what we do and the spiritual component is very important.”
Because Hurricane Hugo was such a watershed event in Southern Baptist disaster relief, Satterwhite noted that 500-600 people are expected to attend a 20th anniversary reunion Oct. 9-10 when the state’s Baptists hold their annual disaster relief training session at Ashley River Baptist Church in Charleston.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board.)