20 years ago, Hugo marked SBC disaster relief turning point

Before Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Andrew in 1992, 20 years ago there was Hugo, a Category 4 hurricane when it ripped into South Carolina on the night of Sept. 21, 1989 – at the time, the most devastating storm to ever hit the United States’ east coast.

Although the deadly hurricane killed a reported 109 people, left 100,000 homeless and inflicted $10 billion ($17 billion in 2009 dollars) in damages, Hugo, like most storms, had a silver lining. Experts agree Hugo was the catalyst for today’s mammoth Southern Baptist Convention disaster relief response capability across the U.S.

The sixth costliest hurricane in U.S. history, Hugo had already killed more than 50 and caused $3 billion in damage in the Caribbean when the hurricane made landfall at Isle of Palms. Then-South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell had already ordered an evacuation of the state’s coast.

Historic downtown Charleston suffered extensive damage, as did Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach and Garden City. Hugo hit at high tide, creating a 12- to 14-foot storm surge. Utility poles bent at 45-degree angles. Ocean Boulevard in Surfside Beach was buried with four feet of sand. But Hugo was not finished.

After inflicting heavy damage on North Carolina’s beaches in Brunswick County and the Outer Banks, Hugo marched on to Charlotte – still as a Category 3 hurricane. Charlotte – 200 miles inland from the Atlantic – was clobbered with 105 mph winds. Power was out, trees were downed, and schools were closed there for two weeks.

South Carolina’s Francis Marion and Sumter national forests were devastated, to the extent that Gov. Campbell said the state had lost enough lumber “to frame a home for every family in the state of West Virginia.”

“After the eye came through Sumter National Forest, which was 80 miles inland, you could drive miles and miles and see trees cut off at 10-feet and up,” recalls Cliff Satterwhite, today the South Carolina Baptist Convention’s disaster relief director.

Mickey Caison, adult volunteer mobilization team leader for the North American Mission Board in Alpharetta, Ga., was a young, 40-year-old pastor at Providence Baptist Church in the small hamlet of Macedonia, near Moncks Corner, the night Hugo came roaring through.

“As the hurricane came in, we were in the eye of the storm 12-15 minutes,” Caison said. “At Macedonia, we were on the edge of the Francis Marion National Forest. More than 290,000 acres of trees were destroyed that night, about 80 percent. In the days afterward, they used everything from mules to helicopters to get the timber to the mills.”

Satterwhite, now 61 with 35 years’ service with the South Carolina convention in Columbia, was assigned to disaster relief the day after Hugo.

“South Carolina didn’t even have a disaster relief ministry in 1989 when Hugo hit. Hugo changed the landscape for everybody. They said, ‘We have a storm and you’re it,’?” recalls Satterwhite, referring to his sudden assignment as the state’s disaster relief coordinator. Satterwhite would spend the next six weeks in a Columbia disaster command post, working 18 hours a day without seeing daylight.

“Other state conventions had disaster relief but not South Carolina. We had zero units.”

In support of the state, 13 feeding units representing 11 state conventions – Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi and Kentucky – descended upon South Carolina after Hugo. Most affected areas were isolated due to the thousands of downed trees. Before they were through, the other states’ feeding units would crank out 265,000 meals to feed Hugo victims.

Satterwhite said South Carolina went from zero units at the time of Hugo in 1989 to 129 units today – including three feeding units that can dole out 15,000 meals a day, as well as units for chainsaw work, recovery, mud-out, repair, showers, laundry, command centers, medical and communications.

Training for disaster relief volunteers in 1989 was spotty at best, said Satterwhite.

“Back then, people would throw a chainsaw in the back of a pickup truck and take off for the coast – totally untrained, not knowing what to do but willing to help someone. Today, we wouldn’t think of a chainsaw team not going out without hardhats, chaps and goggles. No one wore that stuff back then. We were flying by the seat of our pants during Hugo. A lot of DR work was unofficial.”

Post-Hugo disaster relief was focused in the Charleston area because that’s where the national media coverage was, said Satterwhite. “We concentrated on Charleston with five feeding units, and we used fish cookers, not the nice units with tilt skillets and convection ovens we have today.

“Today, South Carolina has 6,800 trained volunteers for disaster relief, and next to North Carolina, we have one of the largest fleets of units,” according to Satterwhite.

Caison agrees with Satterwhite that Hurricane Hugo was a pivotal event in the development of Southern Baptist disaster relief.

“Hugo was a major benchmark,” said Caison, who himself was so moved by the unprecedented, Southern Baptist response to Hugo, he left his pastorate and went into SBC disaster relief full-time.

“It was a large disaster and attracted a lot of media coverage. The next major DR benchmark event was Hurricane Andrew in 1992, followed by the Mississippi floods in 1993, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, 9/11, and, of course, Katrina in 2005. But Hugo was the first, and because of it, we’ve become more focused and specialized in our disaster relief ministry.”

Caison said disaster relief operations now exist in all 42 SBC state conventions, with 90,000 trained volunteers nationwide and more than 2,000 units overall.

“We’ve grown not only in size but in strength,” he said. “We have a deep commitment and passion for what we do, and the spiritual component is very important.”

Because Hurricane Hugo was such a watershed event in Southern Baptist disaster relief, 500-600 are expected to attend a 20th anniversary reunion Oct. 9-10, when South Carolina holds its annual training session at Ashley River Baptist Church in Charleston, said Satterwhite.

Noah is a writer for the NAMB.