South Carolina

McClellanville residents said their final prayers, prepared to drown as Hugo moved in

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Hugo: 30 years later

Three decades have passed since the killer storm, Hurricane Hugo, cut a path of destruction through South Carolina and beyond.

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As the floodwater rose, Elizabeth Young hoisted her two grandsons, ages 3 and 4, on top of a refrigerator, and said a silent prayer that they would survive Hurricane Hugo.

The electricity in Lincoln High School in McClellanville had gone out hours before as the killer storm descended on South Carolina Sept. 21 and 22, 1989.

Now, Young and hundreds of other residents who had sought shelter in the Charleston County school huddled and cried in the dark as the north side of the eyewall passed over.

The water in the school kept inching higher and higher.

To their knees.

Then, their waists.

Then, their chests.

State and local officials had directed residents of the tiny fishing village, population 400, to seek shelter at the school as the storm moved in.

“(The school) never should have been a shelter, but no one knew that then,” said Young recently. “The water took over the building. We thought we were going to die. We knew we were trapped and couldn’t get out.”

With every door sealed tight by the rising water, evacuees climbed on top of tables, chairs, a stage in the cafeteria. One man in a wheelchair was lifted onto a table.

Young and her pregnant daughter, Sharon Brown, then 27, remained standing in the school’s home economics room so they could take turns holding Brown’s squirming boys on top of the refrigerator. The warm water inching up their chests, the two women prayed as small fish, crabs and bits of sea shells floated by.

“Miss Young,” said a friend standing nearby. “We came over here to drown.”

McClellanville — just 30 miles from where Hugo made landfall — was one of South Carolina’s hardest hit spots. And the stories that came out of Lincoln High School are some of the most harrowing.

With no major hurricane directly hitting South Carolina in about 30 years, many S.C. coastal residents chose not to evacuate.

But Hugo would be a different storm. A storm that South Carolina will never forget.

At Lincoln High, some tired of being overcrowded and elected to swim around in the water, clinging to buoyant belongings.

Jaynian White and 14 other members of her family floated near the ceiling of the band room, according to reporting by The State in September 1989. White tied her 1-year-old son to her while someone else lifter her 5-year-old son of top of a shelf. Her 82-year-old grandmother was held afloat by two other family members.

Even emergency personnel stationed at the shelter were caught off guard and rendered as helpless as the evacuees.

As paramedic George Metts wrote later: “The enormity of our situation was staggering. We were totally trapped. The tidal surge had risen so rapidly that we had no time to call for help. My walkie-talkie had gotten wet earlier and now it had fallen into the inky darkness. We were on our own. The water was still rising and those that could were packed like sardines on the stage.”

A few men managed to climb out a window and climb to the school’s roof. They had escaped the floodwater but were now buffeted by ferocious winds and flying debris, including terracotta shingles being ripped from the school’s roof.

Then, the water stopped rising. Perhaps two or three hours after the floodwater penetrated Lincoln High School, it began to seep out, the storm having moved inland, toward Columbia and Sumter.

“It was horrible but it was also a miracle,” Sharon Brown recently told The State. “Not one soul, not one person drowned.”

In this file photo, Elizabeth Young stands in front of the Lincoln High School cafeteria in McClellanville where Hurricane Hugo evacuees almost drowned in Sept. 1989. 9/9/14 Tim Dominick

Daylight soon came, and people exited the building to inspect Hugo’s toll.

Homes were blown off their foundations. Cars had floated every which way, too, some deposited on top of each other. Coffins lay in the streets, washed out of their graves in nearby cemeteries.

As South Carolina picked up the pieces in the months to come, officials learned that a mistake had been made when Lincoln High was designated a storm shelter. The school, just a quarter-mile from the Intracoastal Waterway, was wrongly thought to stand at a much higher elevation.

These days, the school is closed — shut down in 2016. Outside its darkened cafeteria is a plaque, mounted slightly above eye level, marking the high water line of the storm surge.

Young, now 82, doesn’t need to see the plaque to remember.

“When I hear about a storm coming, Hugo comes back on me — all the memories of it, everything flashes right back on me,” she said. “It was bad but it also gave us courage. To be able to survive anything.”

Editor’s Note: This story includes 2014 reporting by writer Jason Ryan. Reporter Cody Dulaney contributed to this report.

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A plaque, which hangs nearly six-feet high on the wall of Lincoln High School in McClellanville, S.C., shows how high water rose in the school during Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Andrew Haworth The State