Memories of Hugo, Hazel and Donna

Published 8:10 am Friday, September 25, 2009

I remember all the horror stories about what happened to people during Hurricane Hugo, especially in McClellanville, S.C. I was living in Denmark, S.C., at the time, and we weren’t impacted except for the traffic snarls on U.S. 78 and 321 caused by all the coastal evacuees heading inland.

My roommate at the time, Shannon, was on the phone talking to her mom in Summerville, S.C., as Hugo made landfall, and at one point, Shannon’s mom described the neighbor’s roof flying past her house. Shannon and I drove down to Summerville a couple of days later and could not believe the thousands of twisted and downed trees that once had formed a canopy of green over Highway 61 and the devastation in her parents’ neighborhood in Summerville.

I learned early in life — at age 5 — about the destruction of hurricanes. Hurricane Hazel zeroed in on my hometown of Franklin, Va., in October 1954. I remember being very frightened and I remember my parakeet, Petey, getting out of his cage in the excitement and flying too low over a candle, catching his tail feathers on fire. But I was too young to understand what a hurricane was, and I don’t remember too much about the damage left behind.

I learned more about hurricanes than I ever wanted to know from Hurricane Donna in September 1960. I was 11 years old. The powerful storm’s center passed off the coast of Virginia. But even though Franklin wasn’t in its direct path, Donna wreaked havoc in my neighborhood, flooding homes and downing hundreds of trees.

We lived with my grandparents then, and their house sat atop a hill, safely above the little stream that ran through the neighborhood. That night the creek was transformed by Donna’s heavy rains into a raging torrent that swept through the first floors of many of my friends’ homes even though those houses were built up on brick columns.

I remember the neighbors coming up to my grandparents’ house to stay during the hurricane. We had six or seven kids in the house that night, along with their parents. We looked out the windows to see pecan trees in the back yard blowing parallel to the ground. The wind was roaring, and all kinds of objects were being whipped through the air.

The scariest moment came when we heard a loud crash that shook the house. One of our neighbors thought her house had been blown away and let out a blood-curdling scream. I’ll never forget that scream as long as I live. The crash turned out not to be at her house but another neighbor’s where a giant oak tree had fallen, slicing through the roof and an upstairs bedroom.

My father stayed busy with the other men in the neighborhood trying to salvage people’s belongings from the floodwaters. For days after Hurricane Donna, our neighbors had their meals with us since we were the only family on the street with a gas stove.

I was so traumatized by the storm that nightmares would awaken me for weeks afterward.

I hope I never have to go through another hurricane.