We had been living aboard our 42-foot Grand Banks boat in the Isle of Palms, South Carolina, marina when the announcement came over the radio. “Hurricane Hugo is headed for Charleston. Those who reside in vulnerable places should evacuate.”

All the boats in the Isle of Palms, South Carolina, marina were tossed onto Goat Island during Hurricane Hugo in 1989 – including the boat where Kay Wheeler and her husband had been living with their cat. Photo courtesy of Kay Wheeler

My husband phoned me from work. I was to gather up our important things and evacuate to the medical university hospital and pick him up. A couple of our friends in Charleston had invited us to stay in their parents’ apartment until it was over. The parents were in Italy at the time.

I gathered up family photo albums, my violin and music, personal files, jewelry, the sewing machine and the silver – and, of course, the cat … she was the most important. I picked up my husband and we drove over to our friends’ parents’ apartment. It was in the shelter house for the hurricane of 1893, so we figured it to be safe. It is a wonderful brick Federal with double brick walls and verandas on both floors.

We unloaded the car and my husband drove it back to the hospital parking building. Then he walked back to the apartment.

Our friends wanted to have a little party on their veranda as the storm came in. During the meal, the large live oaks, hanging heavy with Spanish moss, began to sway in the increasing winds. Suddenly, my husband stood up and said, “OK, it is time to adjourn while we can still walk in the wind.” We left, and just as our friend closed the door, a ceramic tile from a roof across the street hit the door! He could have been terribly hurt.

I have never been through such a night as the night of Hurricane Hugo. It could have been a freight train passing over, but yet it was more like the screaming of a thousand banshees.

A window in the kitchen imploded, and glass flew all the way to the front of the house. My husband grabbed a chair, with his raincoat over the back, and tried to shove it into the area of the missing window. It was too much to hold it there against the howling winds and beating rain. He had nothing to tie it in place and we didn’t know where to find any cord or twine. I pulled off the tie to my robe and we secured the chair. We found a large pasta-cutting board, and secured it behind the chair.

I was terrified. The storm raged several more hours and then, suddenly … all was calm. We opened the French doors and walked out on the veranda. The air was stale and sticky. It smelled like what I would imagine to be the inside of a crypt: dank and stinking and disgusting. You could see the stars. The air was perfectly still. The night bugs were silent. We stood there with our arms around each other as the eye of the storm passed over.

Then the winds began to stir again. We returned inside to endure what we knew would be every bit as bad as the first half of the storm, only to come from a different direction and seek out different weaknesses in the building. This time, the large veranda glass doors were shaking and it seemed the whole building was swaying. The winds went on another couple of hours … then, it was over. We slept the rest of the night with the cat cuddled up against us.

Three days after that, we found ourselves standing in line for food distribution from the Red Cross. The storm had annihilated the grocery stores. No bathroom tissue, no food, no electricity, no water. We had filled pans with water prior to the storm and made it through on that.

We survived the food crisis. Our boat was wrecked. In fact, the hurricane picked up the whole marina and threw it on nearby Goat Island. We had T-shirts made later that said, “Goat Island Yacht Club, Sept. 21, 1989. HUGO.”

A barge with a huge crane came and rearranged the boats for transportation. We sold ours to a dealer, and that was that.

We found a wonderful, sun-filled apartment near enough to both our jobs to walk to. Our furniture had arrived from New Hampshire and got moved in all in one day. At last, moving day was over. We had a light dinner and went to bed. The cat crawled up between us and we all fell asleep – my husband most likely dreaming about the boat, the cat happy to be between us again and me wondering what our next move would be.

Life is so interesting.

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