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'Night of the Living Hugo' — 20 years later 

"Tomorrow morning's gonna be wet, wild and windy, so drive carefully as you head to work!" bellowed a smiley-voiced Charlotte radio announcer during afternoon drive time on Thursday, Sept. 21, 1989. If he'd only known. If only anyone had known.

We all knew Hurricane Hugo was a big one, and that it was going to hit Charleston that night. No one, however, told us -- since no one knew -- that Hugo would then travel up I-26, turn right onto I-77, and hit Charlotte in the middle of the night. By then, Hugo had weakened somewhat, but it hadn't subsided as quickly as previous inland-moving hurricanes.

Nearly everyone who was in Charlotte that night can recite the public facts of what happened: The city was pummeled by sustained 70 mph winds, with frequent gusts up to 90 mph. Thousands of trees were downed -- the smell of cut wood would stay with us for weeks -- power was out for days or weeks, depending on your location, roads were blocked, houses and cars crushed, and on and on. The strongest impressions, though, the stuff that stays with you the rest of your life, are always the personal details.

Our daughter was one year old at the time and slept in the bedroom adjacent to the one shared by my wife Pat and I. With the radio guy's warning of "wet, wild and windy" morning weather in my head, I went to bed a little early, thinking I might have to clean leaves off the car or even pick up a branch or two before heading to work.

I woke up at about 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. It was hot. "What the ...? Why isn't the a/c on?" I reached to turn on the night table lamp, but it didn't work. "Great, the power's out." I got up to open a couple of windows -- by then, Pat was awake -- but the noise from outside stopped me. It sounded as if a long convoy of speeding semis was roaring down our little street. Not trusting my perception in such a sleepy state, I listened again. At which point a loud Cra-a-a-ck! and a big thud boomed outside the window. I rushed to open the blinds. Sheets of rain were racing across the landscape, and a large branch, a foot across, had broken off the big maple tree in the front yard. The tree itself was bent, straining, its leaves shaking and swirling in little round motions, as if hundreds of small, circular gusts of wind were included within the massive blast that threatened to tear it out of the ground.

"Oh my God, the baby!" Pat and I raced to the next room, where Marguerite was sound asleep in her crib. In fact, she slept through the entire night, even when walnuts were torn from their tree by the ferocious wind and slammed, again and again, against the back of our next-door neighbor's house, like so many green fastballs. We felt that we had to do something, so we moved the crib to the middle of the bedroom, away from walls and windows. Like I said, we felt we should be doing something.

With no lights, and no way to cool off without letting squalls into the house, I walked out to the screened-in side porch. The wind was a deep, all-consuming growl, the rain was horizontal, and the air above me and in the distance was a sickly, yellowish green. A neighbor's big garbage can blew down the street and continued out of sight. Some idiot had left his dog outside for the night, and the animal alternately barked and howled for a half-hour. I went back inside and tried to sleep, to no avail.

About 7 a.m., friends and family in the Northeast who had seen the news started calling to see if we were all right. We reassured them that, other than losing power -- which surely would come back on soon -- we were unscathed and yes, the baby slept through the whole thing.

I ventured outside again, where I entered a state of shock that would last for days. Trees and power lines were down. One of our next-door neighbor's pines had fallen across the street, luckily missing a car by a couple of feet. The neighbor, the car owner and I gathered around the tree and, nearly giddy from the stress, traded stories of fear, amazement and interrupted sleep. Another neighbor showed up with a chainsaw and began cutting up the fallen pine, which we carried in pieces to the curb.

Around 9 a.m., I got in my car and started for work. It took more than an hour to make the usual 10-minute drive, as downed trees blocked streets everywhere you turned, forcing you to find another route -- until that route was blocked and you turned around again. Power lines lay across roads, across cars, and snaked up some houses' front steps. The entire front of a small house in Dilworth had been torn off, and a couple was sitting in armchairs in their open-air living room, looking at the few cars going by. Traffic lights were out, and National Guardsmen directed drivers at various big intersections; the traffic now moved more smoothly than when the lights worked. Surreal doesn't even begin to describe that day.

When I got to the old Creative Loafing offices on South Boulevard, across the street from a convenience store whose lavish supply of skin magazines had earned it the nickname "Perv Mart," I was stunned to see that we had electricity. Woo-hoo! We could still make changes to the upcoming issue of CL. But what to do? I was fortunate, and some of our best writers started showing up at the office, mostly to talk about the disaster, some with new story ideas. I immediately got a couple of them to write their own stories of the previous night and make observations about what they'd seen that morning.

And then John Rodgers walked in. Technically, John was our visual arts writer, but he was very versatile and could write about nearly anything and everything. When he told us he had "gone walking around in the hurricane," I knew we had a new cover story. John lived on Thomas Avenue in the Central-Plaza area, and, not being able to sleep, had strolled -- if dodging flying newspaper boxes, jumping over sparking, downed power lines, and being knocked backward by the wind can be called strolling -- down Central, then over to Elizabeth, where he found kindred souls checking out the storm firsthand. He met friends, saw some odd sights, and generally enjoyed the thrill of it all.

He wrote his story, there in the CL office, in about two hours. We had some photos we could use, as music editor Fred Mills had snapped some wild shots of huge trees lying across East Boulevard. Then, photographer Don Swan, ever the intrepid one, came in with a shot he'd just developed, of a church whose steeple had been blown over and landed, point down, through the church's roof. There was our cover shot. We traded suggestions for a headline, from silly to momentous, and finally settled on one that we hoped would capture the crazed energy of the previous 12 hours: "Night of the Living Hugo." The next Wednesday, we were on the street with a fresh, unusual, and intelligent take on what had happened to the city; people were amazed that we'd pulled it off. It was one of the highlights of my tenure as CL editor, one that I and everyone who worked on that issue has good reason to be proud of.

Pat and Marguerite and I stayed with my folks in Rowan County, hoping the power at our home would be back on in a day or so. No such luck. Then something wonderful happened -- to my family, not the city, which by then was being exploited by jerks selling ice for $20 a bag, and generators for $3K.

We were scheduled to take a week's vacation, beginning Sept. 30, eight days after Hugo, on Edisto Island, about 40 minutes south of Charleston. We naturally assumed the island was a wreck, being that close to Hugo's Ground Zero, and called the landlady from whom we rented to see how she was.

"Fine!" she crowed. "No structural damage at all. The top blew off the water tower, but that's about it. We have power, and not that much wind damage. Y'all come on down!" It seemed that Hugo's clockwise rotation had kept Edisto from suffering any damage to speak of. We could not believe our luck. So, the next Saturday morning, we packed up and began a terrific weeklong vacation. With electricity and lights and everything else, just like normal people. And that's how I get to tell people who ask about Hugo experiences that we escaped the results of a hurricane by going to the beach. If it makes you feel any better, our power was still off, and would be for another two days, when we came home.

Deliver Us From Weasels, a collection of 50 of John Grooms' best columns and articles, will be published in November by Main Street Rag Press. The book will cost $14.95, but can be purchased in advance through Oct. 26 for $10 including shipping at www.mainstreetrag.com/store/ComingSoon.php.

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