It seems we’ve made it through another hurricane season unscathed here in South Carolina. Growing up in landlocked Lincoln County, Georgia, I never worried about hurricanes. I left that to folks on the coast who boarded up windows and checked evacuation routes come the season of wind. Sure, a hurricane might have slung a squall line and some thunderstorms my way, but hurricanes were not to be feared. If anything, downpours from a hurricane’s rain bands brought welcome relief to a long, hot summer.
The Southeast lies in the sub-tropics, and along with our alluring Sunbelt days and ways, mint juleps, and mild winters comes a price for coastal dwellers: the tariff comes barreling across the Atlantic from West Africa.
Nothing like a hurricane to make meteorologists across the Southeast giddy. At last they have real weather to report. You can’t grow up in the Southeast and not hear the stories. I remember hearing how monster hurricanes like Hazel wreaked havoc on Myrtle Beach, Camille on Gulfport, Mississippi, and more recently Andrew on Homestead, Florida. Lincolnton, Georgia? There’s no chance anyone in Lincolnton would hold a hurricane party, but legend holds that some foolhardy souls in Mississippi chose to party rather than evacuate when Camille hit in 1969. A few met their demise that way.
I must admit I like hurricanes. There’s something exciting about them. I like to watch them grow and track them as they spin their way across the Atlantic. I try to guess just where a hurricane will land. I know all too well they like to fool the experts. I know from experience.
For me, hurricanes bring a mixed bag of memories. I never figured on being in one but that changed in September 1979. Working as a cinematographer for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, an assignment sent me to the coast to film Hurricane David’s arrival at Edisto Island.
David was the first major hurricane of the 1979 Atlantic hurricane season, and its reputation preceded it. A Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, David was among the deadliest hurricanes in the latter half of the 20th century. A monster in the Caribbean, it destroyed entire jungles and swept families away.
A photographer and I drove to the island, knowing David had already killed more than 2,000 people, mostly in the Dominican Republic. Waves as high as four-story buildings had swept over islands. Two more deaths would be nothing, a drop in the bucket. The hurricane and I were to rendezvous at Edisto Island. I was uneasy.
As we drove, static-filled updates over two-way radio speculated as to where landfall might be. Nervous, excited, yet afraid, I didn’t know what to expect. It was Tuesday, September 4, my sister’s birthday and the birthday of my oldest daughter also.
As we drove toward Edisto, a stream of outbound traffic met us. As the prudent evacuated, we drove toward the storm. No one dared stop us. We traveled in a Crown Victoria fully marked with law enforcement insignia and a big whip antenna.
Close to the island, the hurricane flung hard, horizontal rain at us, like rocks pelting the windshield. On we went. The closer we got to the island, the more violently live oaks and palmettos shook their crowns as if saying, “No, you don’t want to do this.”
We crossed the Intracoastal Waterway, what locals call the Big Ditch, and we were on Edisto. We drove onto the beach’s hard-packed sand and stepped out into a river of wind. Setting up my Bolex was difficult. Sand peppered me, stinging exposed skin, and it was hard to see. All I could hear was a high-pitched howl and pounding surf.
High surf rose and fell with mighty crashes, dirty grey from the heavy load of sand it carried and the roiling water looked more like a wave of pliable earth. The word “plasma” came to mind. The power lines along the street whipped in mighty arcs as if invisible giants were jumping rope.
I shot some footage through a rain-splattered lens. The wind kept picking up, an unceasing pressure. I leaned into the wind so steeply I would have fallen had a lull set in, but an unceasing river of wind held me up.
We stood there taking in the fact that we were watching the edge of a hurricane come ashore, or so we thought. Suddenly, it was time to go. A 55-gallon drum came skipping toward us, driven by the wind, hopscotching along on its rim. As it veered by, a nearby power line snapped spewing fire and hissing like a snake.
We loaded up. A radio report said Hurricane David had changed course and would now come ashore in Charleston. Off to Charleston we drove, heading up Highway 17 in spits and fits of driving rain.
In Charleston, we drove to the battery. That seemed like a safe place to shoot film. At the Battery’s north end, waves crashed into the wall, exploding skyward where the wind whipped them higher over East Battery forming a tunnel of sea foam. It looked much like Jim Booth’s “The Storm,” an iconic painting seen in corporate offices, most anywhere.
I rolled my window down to pan the camera across the seawall and a massive wave gushed into the window soaking me, the camera, and leaving water pooled in the floorboard. So ended our hurricane hunt. As it turned out, David ended up coming ashore near Savannah. Fickle are the whims of nature.
Ten years later, the birthday of my youngest daughter ushered in another hurricane. September 21, 1989, Hugo, the most intense hurricane to hit the United States north of Florida, roared ashore near McClellanville, South Carolina. After clobbering this quaint fishing village whose nearby pastures host Oreo-like Belted Galloway cows, it headed north right over Columbia.
This hurricane, Hugo, found me right where I lived. I was ready, having taped up my windows and stocked up on provisions and batteries. Around 2 a.m. the patio gate began swinging wildly, so much so it nearly came off its hinges. I tied it down with rope. Looking straight up into the sky, the nightlights of Columbia illuminated orange swirling clouds bound for Charlotte and points north. It looked like a monstrous slab of cinnamon swirl bread, the maelstrom revealed. The winds howled most of the night punctuated by the thud of flying tree branches. And then the power went out.
The next morning, daylight broke on a city of strewn limbs, mostly pine, and the air smelled as if someone had cleansed the city with Pine-Sol, the self-proclaimed “powerful scent of real clean.” The sky was a crisp blue and the land shone as if a giant scrub brush had scoured everything to a fine sheen.
Georgia was playing Mississippi State later that day. I headed out for Athens that morning, having survived my second hurricane encounter. A hurricane has not been near me since.
Would I chase down a hurricane again? Yes, but I’d hope new technology would better pinpoint its landfall. Like I said, there’s something exciting about hurricanes, and I’m eager for one more close encounter—the real deal. Many people, though, live in dread of cyclones.
If you have friends living along the coast scared out of their wits by hurricanes, folks who are nervous as Hell come hurricane season, tell them to move to the Equator. No hurricanes occur within 300 miles of the Equator. There is no Coriolis effect there, no way to give them the deadly spin they desperately need. The tradeoff, however, is permanent summer and unending heat. No winter, no spring, and no fall and its association with killers with names like Camille, Hazel, and Hugo.