21 September 2009

Hurricane Hugo, twenty years later

Charleston, S.C.

There has been much on the news about today being the 20th anniversary of hurricane Hugo. It didn't really hit me until I was at work today and suddenly felt the urge to connect with people I'd worked with that night. I roamed the halls almost desperately, only to be told Gerri was on call, Sue was off, Pennie was out.

I needed to make contact with someone who knew. Someone who had had the same plastic bracelet snapped on their wrist to identify our bodies if we didn't survive. I needed to find at least one person who sat with me on the floor of the hospital hallway listening to the waterfall of rain pouring down the elevator shaft, and the wind breaking through our windows as we huddled with our patients in circles around the nursing stations in the eery light of emergency power.

Everyone I found said, "no Joan, I wasn't here, I was still in college", at home, escaped to North Carolina or working elsewhere. I stood in the women's center lobby trying to think of who to look for. I looked at the gentleman volunteer staffing the information desk and it hit me. "Paul, Paul, I worked with your wife through Hugo. I worked with Rita and after it was over we climbed twelve stories to look out over the peninsula to see if any of us had houses to go home to."

Rita, Lynn and I walked out that morning exhausted and disoriented. We picked our way over fallen trees and debris and found my house wounded but standing still. We freshened up with towels and finding beds damp but not wet with blown in rain, collapsed and slept soundly for a few hours before heading back to work. We'd delivered babies throughout the storm and babies would be born everyday of the recovery.

Rita passed away years ago but Paul listened to me hungry for a little unknown scrap of memory of his wife. "She didn't tell me", he kept saying holding my hand, "She didn't tell me that she went to your house."

I had been a Labor & Delivery nurse then and while searching for a picture recently I came across our old scrapbook. The pictures are fading Polaroids but the memories leap off the page. One shows a patient room with broken window panes and wild flung drapes. Dr. Ralph Principe was mopping the floor of the Birth Suite. We were desperate for news and Dr. Jimmy Townsend helped us tear apart the spiral electrodes used for internal fetal monitoring and hook them up as makeshift tv antennas to a tv on emergency power.

I didn't find you all today but consider this a shout out, to the rest of my friends who stayed and did what needed to be done. How lucky we were.


  1. I hope you hear from more of your friends from that time. Many Katrina survivors are still suffering fractured lives. Medical personnel who serve through such a time should be canonized. Thank you all with deepest gratitude for what you do.

  2. Joan, unrelated to your post, I thought I would let you know that I nominated you for a little blogging thing over at my place. This will of course not compare with your BIG blogging accolades, but I thought it might be fun. If you are too busy to play, don't worry about it at all.

  3. Thanks Anita. We were so very fortunate. Messy, broken, hot, stinky but fortunate.

  4. These are some mercerizing shots !! Great..Unseen Rajasthan

  5. Joan, bless you for staying at your post during the storm. Since I rented a place on Seabrook I had to evacuate to a friend's house in Columbia. Here four humans, a pack of dogs and a few cats huddled in the hallway hoping the spawned tornados or the swaying pines did not hit the house. After the storm my real heartache began when I saw what the storm had done to my adopted city and to the lands around it. I had forgotten the anniversary until I saw your post.

    Les @ atidewatergardener.blogspot.com

  6. Thanks Les. It still seems to fresh to bear another hurricane, doesn't it?

  7. I was living in Tampa at the time, so I wouldn't've been much help yesterday, either - sorry, Joan! I've heard so many stories though - it's truly amazing what we humans can do in such a situation, isn't it? Hope you/we don't have to face such another monster in our lifetimes.

  8. No words can adequately thank you and your fellow medical professionals for what you did then and continue to do ever day. I was in marketing/communications in 1989, with a retailer, Herman's Sporting Goods, which had a Charleston store that was badly damaged by Hugo. The all-female management team was incredible throughout the devastating storm and aftermath. On October 17th, an earthquake hit the San Fransisco Bay area. Again, one of our stores, on Market Street, was badly damaged. Scary stuff but nothing comparable to what you and other brave professionals do when it really matters especially in the aftermath of the hurricane.

    In a far, far different capacity I was on the ground the morning after Katrina hit Biloxi, Miss. and saw nurses and doctors huddled under the canopy of the emergency entrance of Biloxi Regional Medical looking ragged, tired and shocked. I will never forget their faces and the utter destruction that surrounded the hospital just a couple blocks from what was left of the beach highway along the Gulf. And it was still early and I knew that the worst lay ahead for everyone there on that morning after. Hard to believe Hugo was twenty years ago and Katrina was 4. But the memories are quite vivid and the toll very real even after all this time.

    Joan, you and your fellow nurses are angels from heaven. Bless you.

  9. My sister and I were in Nashville, freshmen in college. Every single one of our relatives stayed behind in Charleston and on Johns Island and we didn't know what had happened to them for days afterwards. I still remember that haunted worry, even though everyone survived, and our biggest losses were oak trees and roofs.


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