Hurricane Hugo

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Hurricane Hugo
Hurricane Hugo off the coast of South Carolina

Hurricane Hugo off the coast of South Carolina
Duration Sept. 9 - 25, 1989
Highest winds 160 mph (260 km/h) sustained
Damages $15-16 billion (2005 dollars)
Fatalities 70 - 100 direct
Areas affected Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Dominica, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, North Carolina, most of the eastern United States and Canada
Part of the 1989 Atlantic hurricane season

Hugo was a destructive Category 5 Atlantic hurricane that struck Puerto Rico, St. Croix, and South Carolina in 1989. It killed over 50 people. The storm caused billions of US dollars in damages, and is still one of the costliest hurricanes in history.


Storm history

Storm path
Storm path

A group of thunderstorms moved off of Cape Verde, Africa, on September 9, 1989. Moving westward, it formed into Tropical Storm Hugo on September 11, and became a hurricane on the 13th. Hugo briefly reached Category 5 intensity while well out in the Atlantic. It reached the Caribbean as a Category 4 hurricane where it passed over Guadeloupe, the Leeward Islands, St. Croix, and the eastern tip of Puerto Rico.

Hugo weakened after leaving the warm waters of the Caribbean, but quickly restrengthened when it passed over the Gulf Stream. The storm made landfall in South Carolina on the evening of September 21st as a Category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. Hugo was forecast to move toward Savannah, Georgia but instead turned north toward Charleston, South Carolina. The eye of the hurricane passed just northeast of Charleston.

After landfall, Hugo weakened into a tropical storm while passing near Charlotte, North Carolina. The storm continued north as an extratropical low, moving over the eastern Great Lakes and parts of eastern Canada.

Impact in the Caribbean

Severe damage was reported throughout the islands of the Caribbean. The storm killed six people in Puerto Rico and St. Croix. $3 billion (1989 USD) in damages was estimated in the Caribbean (including $1 billion in Puerto Rico and the USVI [1]).

Operation Hawkeye

On the island of St. Croix, looting and lawlessness reigned in the aftermath of Hugo. Phone lines, electricity, hospitals, banks, the airport and 90% of all structures were severely damaged or destroyed. Three days after the storm hit, the Governor of the Virgin Islands asked President George H. W. Bush for federal assistance in restoring order to the island. On September 20, members of the XVIII Airborne "Contingency Corps" were dispatched to the island as part of Operation Hawkeye. Military police patrolled the island for two months imposing a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Cargo planes brought in food, water, mobile hospital units and other supplies while offering free evacuation flights for anyone wanting to leave for the mainland.

The social unrest and looting which took place on St. Croix was not typical of the reaction of hurricane victims and would not be seen again until Hurricane Jeanne hit Haiti in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.

Impact in the United States

While downtown Charleston suffered extensive damage, the greatest damage was reported in the northern suburbs of Mount Pleasant, Sullivan's Island, and Isle of Palms. Both islands were disconnected from the mainland by destruction of their bridges. Along the coast Hugo destroyed many houses and the storm surge piled boats on top of each other.

The storm's most intense wind and storm surge came ashore still further north between the small towns of Awendaw and McClellanville. An extraordinary 20-foot storm surge was reported between Cape Romain and Bulls Bay. Most mature trees in the Francis Marion National Forest were killed. In McClellanville, a small fishing town, residents took refuge in Lincoln High School, and were surprised by the sudden tidal surge which flooded the school. With water pouring into the rooms, the refugees helped one another in pitch darkness to climb into the space in the hanging ceiling above the rooms. All survived.

Savannah, Georgia was evacuated in anticipation of Hugo, but saw no effects of the storm. Had Hugo hit Savannah, it would have been the first major hurricane to hit the U.S. east coast between Palm Beach, Florida and the Savannah River since 1899; instead, this would last fifteen more years, until Hurricane Jeanne hit north of Palm Beach in 2004.

The storm moved rapidly, with the center passing over Moncks Corner and close to Sumter, destroying homes, timber, and the area's cotton crop.

By the time it reached Charlotte, Hugo was still strong enough to topple many trees across roads and houses and leave many without power for as long as two weeks. The last death caused by the storm was in East Aurora, New York near Buffalo when the winds toppled a tree onto a motorist.

Rainfall totals associated with Hugo were slightly below the average for a direct United States strike, likely due to its rapid forward motion. The maximum amount measured was 10.28" at Edisto Island, South Carolina. The storm total rainfall graphic is located here.


After the storm, South Carolina Governor Carroll Campbell said that the storm destroyed enough timber to frame a home for every family in the state of West Virginia. He also noted that there were about 3,000 tornadoes embedded within the hurricane, which accounts for extensive damage in some areas not within the path of the eyewall.

In South Carolina, which bore the brunt of the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was slow in responding and Senator Fritz Hollings referred to them as "a bunch of bureacratic jackasses." An investigation was launched, which led to some reforms in FEMA procedures that helped the agency do a somewhat better job during Andrew, the next catastrophic hurricane to strike the United States.

Hugo caused $7 billion (1989 USD) in damage in the mainland U.S[2]. At the time it was the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, but was exceeded in 1992 by Hurricane Andrew.

Overall Impact

Total damages from the storm were $10 billion (1989 USD). Hurricane Hugo is the 4th costliest Atlantic hurricane.

Costliest Atlantic hurricanes, 1851-2004
Cost refers to total estimated property damage.
Rank Hurricane Year Cost (2004 USD)
1 Andrew 1992 $43.672 billion
2 Fifi 1974 $20 billion (2005 USD)
3 Charley 2004 $15 billion
4 Ivan 2004 $14.2 billion
5 Hugo 1989 $12.25 billion
Source: NOAA

Sources differ on the number of people killed by Hugo, with some citing the American Meteorological Society's figure of 49, and others claiming 56 deaths [3]. Some government agency sources claim only 32 deaths in the United States. The death toll on St. Croix is also debatable as several mass graves were dug in the aftermath. Most people agree that these were dug for people who were already dead when the storm hit, and who could no longer be kept in morgues and funeral homes due to the lack of refridgeration; however rumors persist that unaccounted-for victims of the storm were also burried in this manner.

Extensive relief aid was provided throughout by The Salvation Army, the Red Cross and various churches.

The name Hugo was retired following this storm, and was replaced with Humberto in the 1995 season.


When the storm hit St. Croix, it destroyed the only Olympic-sized pool in the Virgin Islands. This pool was the training site of Tim Duncan, a 13-year-old swimmer who was one of the top age-group swimmers in the United States. After his training pool was destroyed Duncan switched his focus to basketball and went on to be an NBA star.

See also

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