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Night of the Living Hugo 

Take a walk on the wild side

Fifteen years ago, on the afternoon of September 21, 1989, a Charlotte radio announcer warned that "tomorrow morning will be wet, wild and windy" -- Hurricane Hugo was due to hit Charleston that night and then lose strength dramatically as it moved inland. Instead, after devastating Charleston, Hugo headed up I-77 and raked Charlotte with 90mph gusts and sustained winds of 70mph. Few people slept through the night as the eerie noise of the storm and a massive power outage had Charlotteans hunkered down, wondering what was going on and hoping it would end. The hurricane knocked over tens of thousands of trees, destroying homes and cars, blocking hundreds of streets, and cutting power for days; it was by far the largest natural disaster to ever hit the city. One regular CL contributor at the time, John Rodgers, reacted differently to Hugo's arrival. He went out walking in it, taking mental notes, resulting the next week in a report that is still one of our all-time favorite CL cover stories. Originally published under Rodgers' then-pseudonym of Xavier Ashe, the story is presented here as a remembrance of Hugo's 15th anniversary and as an addendum to hurricane tales we've heard the past couple of weeks from our mountain neighbors.

Some folks slept through it. Me, in my 90-year-old mill house with a tin roof, well . . . Lying there in the dark with my home rocking and the trees rolling around outside, hey, it seemed like time to check it all out.

Hugo was upon us, it was early Friday morning and the last official report I'd heard was 12 hours earlier. He was going to hit Charleston, Charlotte would be in his path. And here he was. I was ready for a stroll.

Outside at 4:30am, the wind was already blowing hard, with gusts too strong to move against. I motivated over the hill and through the streets of Thomastown, the ghetto end of Plaza Midwood. It was the last of the power, as lights began to flicker off and the ghostly green glow of exploding transformers sent up sporadic luminous waves through the tumbling mix of rain and clouds which careened from east to west. The wind rose and fell, and I moved in time with that rhythm.

The perfect counterpoint, I became motionless when the trees began to rock, an immobility born of hyper-alertness as much as the impossibility of moving against the wind which met the trees and howled. I howled back, secure that, like my cantatas in the shower, this was for my ears only. Then I danced a ragged jig among the fallen trees, limbs and leaves which had begun to litter the streets.

And it was all just beginning. Moving down Thomas Avenue, two men and a dog emerged from a house with an umbrella, seemingly ready for a pleasant stroll in the rain. I soon left that improbable sight behind as I continued my travels, storming down the street.

Crossing the Plaza on Belvedere, it was obvious that the wind was continuing to pick up. The lulls became fewer and shorter. Hooking around to Veterans Park near Central Avenue and Morningside, there were, amazingly, cars headed toward town. Their lights, the only illumination, pierced thickening clumps of atmosphere, part vapor, part leaves, part unidentified fibers. It was exhilarating and absolutely elemental: it was uplifting and terrifying at the same time. It must be like this on Venus; a raw and primal kind of beauty, a perpetual fog occasionally glowing and rushing headlong quickly and nowhere, spitting and scouring all exposed surfaces. Too damp and ethereal to claim kinship to hell, this was more a visceral purgatory with promises of strange and mysterious, positively unearthly visual delights, before being blown up, down, or away.

I heard or maybe just felt something above the wind. Turning, I had just missed the falling oak which now lay across the road ahead of an approaching car which never slowed down, just jogged left and plunged on into the murky darkness. More trees began to go, while three fruit trees across the street lay against the ground and spun on their tap roots, digging circular trenches around their soon-to-be-stumps. In times of danger, they will come in threes.

Amazed, I moved to the leeward side of some buildings for a break from this mesmerizing sight and from the rain which had geared up its horizontal bop against my cheeks. At this point I was long since soaked and occasionally shivering, more from excitement than cold.

Out on Central Avenue, broken plastic and sheet metal were soaring, daring soft flesh to cut their flight short. Like a surrealistic behemoth, a tractor trailer pulled itself shuddering through the mist, inexplicably upright against the wind which was reaching its peak. And in a parking lot, a lone figure sat impassively in a car, watching mutely as I fought to stay upright against the winds which by then were gusting to 90 miles per hour.

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