Saving Grace: Adalyn Cooper and Elza Hayen on Hurricane Hugo

When asked to recall how Hurricane Hugo affected her hometown of Kingstree, South Carolina, Adayln Cooper remembers most that the storm pulled together her fellow community members. On the eve of September 21, 1989, the storm struck Kingstree, a rural town (whose population hovers around 3,500) that is located about 50 miles from the Atlantic Coast and just over 70 miles from Charleston. Adayln and her family were holed up in their large, concrete two-story home, which was seemingly unmovable.

However, the ferocious and merciless winds that whipped through the town moved their concrete structure a full two inches. Her neighbors were not as lucky. The house across from Adayln’s was completely ripped off its foundation, with only just sand and steel pegs left behind. Adalyn remembers the storm demolished many houses in Columbia, a city two hours west of Kingstree where her relatives lived. Nearby inlets and canals were filled with debris that once were the building blocks of people’s homes. After the storm, all folks could do was walk around and pick through the rubble.

When Hurricane Hugo hit the shores of Charleston, South Carolina, at 11:30 p.m., its winds exceeded 130 miles per hour. The roof was blown off a local elementary school, exposing the huddling 100 lives inside to the fierce storm.

Adalyn’s niece, Elza, was sheltering in her Columbia home during the storm. Although she was fascinated by this forceful weather event, Elza says, “when the hurricane was going, it looked like the world was going to end.” Witnessing the power of the storm inspired Elza to pursue a career in hurricane mitigation, working with a South Carolina insurance firm.

Before the shock wore off, the National Guard, state troopers, firefighters, and good Samaritans came to South Carolina to help in the recovery. “FEMA put a gigantic rolled up bag next to our home filled with water,” says Adalyn, referring to the large “bladders” that the agency uses to distribute large amounts of water to survivors. “The highway turned into a long stream of traffic of people lined up to get water.”

Adalyn’s family home was also the community’s general store. “After the hurricane, friends and neighbors came into the store sharing stories of the families in the more rural areas of Georgetown County.” People who lived to the west of Kingstree had very little to begin with, but after the storm, they were left with close to nothing. This heart-wrenching news moved Adalyn and her friends to collect money and food from local businesses, country folk, and churches in order to provide essentials and support to the hard-hit families there.

“They had so little then,” says Adalyn. “It was too sad…they had nothing left.” Adalyn and her friends worked for days delivering supplies to those who needed fresh food and water. The power in Kingstree was off for three weeks; townspeople remained in their homes playing cards and connecting with other survivors. “People came together despite what they heard, or knew about each other, it was distinctly American.”

Elza came away from living through this experience valuing the importance of preparedness but believes people who live near bodies of water need to be cautious. “It is important to not have low-lying homes and to get as far from the beach as you can before building your home,” Elza advises. She stresses that most insurance policies do not cover flooding; therefore, homeowners need to reinforce their doors with storm-resistant framing. But no matter how prepared people might be, Elza points out that proper preparedness does not mean a hurricane will not destroy your home.

Adalyn’s home built two generations ago by her grandfather still stands today, however South Carolina is still rebuilding in 2008 after the terrifying ferocity that was Hurricane Hugo.