David Lauderdale

Beaufort County’s reaction to Hurricane Hugo still hard to believe

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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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Hurricane Hugo will always be remembered for bringing much of the South Carolina Lowcountry to its knees 30 years ago.

But that same deadly storm should also be remembered for making Beaufort County stand tall.

Overnight, Beaufort County went from being a sure target to being totally spared. And then the story of a lifetime erupted spontaneously. A entire community was swept away by compassion.

Ground zero turned out to be a teal-roofed radio station on U.S. 278 in Bluffton.

Morning deejay and news director Sherry Mims Minson had evacuated to Lake City. The storm hit there in the wee hours of a Friday morning, Sept. 22, 1989. After sunrise, about the time she would have been starting the “Tom and Sherry Show” on WHTK-FM with Tom Winston, she got a call from him.

The coast was clear to come home, he said.

It was eerie driving south on an empty Interstate 95, she said.

“Hit Radio WHTK” got back on the air at 5:30 p.m. — about 17 hours after Hugo hit shore near Charleston.

Immediately, the phone started ringing.

The station had a national 800 number, and about eight lines. Soon all the lines were ringing.

And they didn’t stop ringing for almost two weeks.

WHTK-FM was a new voice. It had only been on the air three months. But its powerful 100,000-watt signal blanketed the Charleston area.

“We had people in dire need of medicine or water or food,” Minson said. “Or, they were trying to communicate with loved ones they couldn’t get through to.”

Terry Foxx, Sally Taylor, Scott Paxton, and others on the station staff, worked the microphones in shifts around the clock, with no ads and no songs.

“We flew by the seat of our pants,” said Ralph Wimmer, the program director whose on-air name was Tom Winston. “There were no plans, that this is what we’re going to do when we get back. It just HAPPENED. We became very emotionally attached to it. You would go home and you would feel guilty for being home.”

Minson said, “I worked 11 days without a break. I talked so much I got nodules on my vocal cords.”

The station was quickly swamped with volunteers. Station manager William “Beau” Sanders welcomed them. After only one song (“Get on Your Feet” by Miami Sound Machine), Wimmer bagged the Top 40 music, and WHTK-FM became a MASH unit.

HAM radio operators set up in the garage.

Volunteers answered the phone, recording the pleas from people. Deejays put it on the air.

And then came the computer clubs to organize all the piles of scribbled notes: neatly matching needs with volunteers.

A woman afraid she would die without insulin got a delivery. Volunteers drove infant formula to a desperate mother in rural Charleston County.

“Someone calls and they’ve been sitting in the dark for days,” Minson said at the time. “They have no one to talk to. They call in and tell you their stories and you just want to cry on the air with them.”

A man showed up at the station to haul goods to Charleston, Wimmer recalled. He asked the man how he had fared. He said his roof was blown off. Wimmer asked, “Then why are you here?” The stranger said it was because a lot of people were worse off than he was.

At 1 o’clock one morning, volunteer Shelly Shreve was punching information about roofing businesses into a computer at the station. She had already worked a full day at the Country Club of Hilton Head, and had just finished waitressing at W.F. Pelican restaurant.

“This could have just as easily been us,” she said. “I want to do all I can to help.”

The groundswell

At first, we had no idea of the depth of the despair we had dodged.

But an early report came from Jim Vicar of the Beaufort County School District, who delivered a generator to the Charleston County schools the day after the storm.

“ ‘Terrible’ is too tame a word to describe it,” he said. “There are a thousand places to start, and you can’t see the end of it.”

Then came the flood of local help. Local people, often riding in convoys, went into the battle zone by day and returned to resupply at night.

An American Red Cross blood drive at Parris Island broke a record with 380 units donated on the Sunday after the storm.

Beaufort Marines rolled north in convoys of 5-ton trucks, some hauling dry ice, water purifiers and forklifts.

Cooke Cablevision on Hilton Head became one of the earliest headquarters for dropping off clothing and supplies. Among volunteers helping organize it were vacationers.

WYKZ “Kiss FM” ran a two-day fundraising auction for 14 hours a day.

The Radisson hotel on Hilton Head took in the homeless.

Relief supplies were collected at the high school football games, and scores of local businesses.

Churches paired with communities in need, including First Baptist Church reaching out to Goose Creek; First Presbyterian with Monck’s Corner; All Saints Episcopal adopted the Church of the Epiphany in Eutawville; Grace Community Church went into the all-but-drowned fishing village of McClellanville; and the Master Gardeners of Beaufort County adopted Eutawville.

The Town of Hilton Head Island deferred receipt of $6.2 million from the state for its first major beach nourishment project.

The Heritage Classic Foundation contributed $25,000 cash; the Hilton Head Rotary’s Club’s initial wave of help was $30,000 cash; and the Bargain Box thrift store made a $25,000 donation to the Sunrise Presbyterian Church on Sullivan’s Island, where the son of an islander was pastor — and where flounder were flopping on what was left of the parking lot when the pastor found the pulpit Bible on the floor, opened to a passage in Jeremiah promising that sounds of joy and gladness would return to a desolate land.

Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks ran its ice maker around the clock to ship ice to an area where worn out residents waited hours in hot lines for ice or gasoline.

Miles Altman of Hilton Head hauled 30,000 pounds of ice from Florida to Charleston.

Hilton Head Primary School adopted Flowertown Elementary in Summerville.

Six-year-old Leea Culbertson, a first-grader at Shell Point Elementary School, heard all the talk on WHTK-FM while her family returned from evacuation and concluded nobody was doing anything for the children. She dictated a letter to her mother, which was read on the air, asking for toys and coloring books. “Please share so the boys and girls won’t cry,” Leea said. Tony Smith of Bluffton arranged drop-off points, and drove a van and utility trailer full of toys to Charleston.

Hilton Head Homebuilders Association members went day after day, 40 or 50 strong, to Summerville, Hollywood and rural communities. They would go door to door, sawing trees off roofs and covering the holes with tarp. One of the things they encountered was a neighborhood with rising raw sewage.

Jazz musicians raised money with a concert at Heart-Hearted Hannah’s in Savannah. Eleanor Krebs was among the singers who performed at a musical/arts benefit for Hugo victims at Holy Family Catholic Church.

And on Sherry Mims Minson’s first day off, she led a convoy of relief workers into Manning, the Pee Dee town where she was born. They were joined by a van full of people from Florida who heard about it on the radio while driving through.

United Way

Collins Doughtie of Bluffton admits he became obsessed with helping Hugo victims.

He was touched by the plight of a 75-year-old woman in the Hamlin Beach community near Awendaw, above Charleston.

“Her cats and chickens were drowned, the china cabinet with the treasures of a lifetime had floated away and fiddler crabs scampered through thick marsh mud in what was once her front room,” reported the Packet’s Brigid Schulte. “All that the retired sweetgrass basketweaver had left in the world could fit into one orange crate box.”

Doughtie promised the woman a new home for Christmas. And riding the wave of community generosity, he delivered.

“A Home for the Holidays” was born. He designed T-shirts that were hawked on WHTK-FM and raised $15,000. Dolphin Corp. designed a simple home. Espy Lumber sold him five truckloads of lumber at cost and delivered it free. Tom Peeples Builder Inc. went to Hamlin Beach and built the home in 48 hours.

Doughtie thanked a list of 15 other businesses or individuals who helped Mary Jane Manigault, who turned out to be a nationally-recognized basketweaver.

“A Home for the Holidays” funded several more homes, including one built by students of the Beaufort-Jasper Academy for Career Excellence.

In a separate move involving the whole community, The Island Packet inserted 6,000 grocery bags donated by Union Camp in one morning’s newspapers, asking readers to fill them with a specific list of personal items hurricane victims would need.

In three days, 3,000 bags were brought to the newspaper office, totaling 22 tons of supplies. They were loaded by 51 volunteers into 27 vehicles for delivery to homes in remote areas of Sumter, Lee and Clarendon counties.

The Packet worked through the local United Way, which was paired for hurricane relief with the United Way in Sumter County, where 1,700 homes were destroyed, and 1,500 homes were damaged. The goods were shipped on the same day the Packet’s drive for cash donations reached $32,000.

Packet readers included personal notes and gifts in their bags of batteries and toilet paper and such. One man brought in 100 cans of chicken soup, saying that’s what always worked for him in times of trouble. An elderly woman added two beautiful, hand-knitted shawls. One man brought six bottles of champagne, insisting that they be split up among six families.

Another woman set off a brief panic when she called to say she feared she accidentally dropped some fresh fish in her bag.

“She said we’d know which bag it was,” said volunteer Gisela Fox.

This only scratches the surface of a most remarkable time.

Collins Doughtie looks back on it now and says, “What I would give to see this country have a period like that when everybody was on the same page.

“Everybody was so gracious, so together. We were friendly to each other. We were generous. We had compassion. It was incredible.”

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Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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