Hurricanes humble us, steel our resolve
Posted on 11 November 2008
Written by Tom Neale
The mast of the huge sailboat twisted like a string of spaghetti around and around the lone standing piling. Its boat, no longer attached to the mast, rested beneath the water, mangled and crushed among other pilings. They’d snapped in the wind like toothpicks.
Some docks remained, but you had to pick your way through drowned wreckage to safely reach them. Rubble in flattened mounds marked where most buildings had stood. Electric lines lay around the Bahamas island, crisscrossed and jumbled. Dogs, cats and rats littered the sand around the lines, all dead and stinking the smell of electrocuted meat. This was even worse than what we’d seen at Homestead, back in Florida.
Before we left the coast to head over to the Bahamas, we’d docked the boat in Miami Beach and driven with friends through Homestead. They had lived there. We’d met them years before at the island of Warderick Wells in the Bahamas. They’d survived the hurricane — Andrew in August 1992 — huddled, terrified, in a bathroom, listening to the world violently coming apart around them. They survived, but for what seemed like an eternity they thought they weren’t going to. The house didn’t.
Riding through the streets with them, I was reminded of the photos I’d seen of the annihilation in Japan after the atomic bomb blasts. Not that it was the same thing, but I couldn’t help remembering those horrific scenes. Strangely, the people in Miami Beach, while they had plenty to remember in their nightmares, had experienced nothing like the clean sweep — no, call it a dirty, vicious sweep — of Homestead.
We talked with another friend from the area who’d also survived. Like us, he lived aboard a sailboat. His home marina was at Coconut Grove. The marina and its boats, as well as those anchored nearby, had been thoroughly trashed. Our friend was a tough and capable guy who figured this would happen, so he had taken his boat, a 43-foot pilothouse, out to the mangroves near Angelfish Creek. He tied it tightly and carefully in a well-chosen hole. “Never again,” he said later. And he said it again, many different times and in many different ways.
Yes, he survived, as did the boat, miraculously with but a little damage. But he knew this was pure luck, that he had been totally at the mercy of the storm — and that’s never a good place to be.
* * *
But a benefit of living on a cruising boat is that it’s easy to move, and our friend wanted a more pleasant change of scenery. So our two boats sailed in tandem to the Bahamas, stopping at Chub Cay. That’s where we saw the spaghetti mast and the dead animals and much more.
Expensive out-island resort homes lay scattered in pieces across the scrub and beaches. A toilet squatted in open air on a concrete slab foundation, the walls and house around it gone. A refrigerator lay split open against a stub of a palm tree, far down the road from where its home had been. And above a beach stood a grand set of windows in steel frames, tilting crazily. They’d been built to withstand 200-mph winds, a local person told us. They had — almost. It’s just that the home around them was gone.
The customs house at the airport still stood, probably because both its doors had blown out, allowing the wind to pass through. The palm tree downwind also still stood, mercifully. Its top was gone, but the trunk remained — scarred but proud. It had saved the customs officer who had wrapped his arms around it when he was blown out of the office. Perhaps it would, someday, far into the future, bear coconuts again.
After carefully exploring part of the island, we launched our dinghy. We’d often dived the reefs around the island, looking for fish, lobster and conch — and just looking. It was so beautiful. Not anymore. We were stunned to see our favorite reef gray, rounded off, broken off, sand blasted, dead. Brain coral, staghorn coral, fan coral — none had escaped. It was like a huge underwater bomb or toxic explosion had ripped through this beautiful world. But it was nothing from man. It was the work of nature, in the form of Andrew.
The locals told me the reef had been as vibrant and beautiful as ever just before he came. The force and turmoil of the waves had killed the reef, which had thrived for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, in just a few hours.
We remained a few days, then carefully picked our way out as we had entered, past Mama Rhoda Rock and through the reef. We looked back in sorrow at Chub Cay harbor, where we’d spent so many good times. It had been considered a hurricane hole because it was completely enclosed within the island. Its entrance channel had been blasted out of rock, and it boasted a distinct dogleg to stop surge. I don’t consider any place to be a hurricane hole. Not anymore. But the owners rebuilt the resort to be better than ever, and if you visit the island today, you’ll not be reminded of Andrew, except for what you know about hurricanes in the hidden parts of your brain.
After we left Chub, we headed for other Bahamian islands. Royal Island is about 45 miles northeast of Nassau. We’ve often stopped there to wait for weather while heading up to Abaco. This also was thought of as a hurricane hole. It had been for centuries. It was so-named because the great sailing ships of the British navy went to its harbor for shelter. We’d marveled at the ancient, massive bollards around the harbor, hidden in the rotting foliage of the jungle. After that time, the island had been a plantation, complete with mansion.
As we walked the enshrouded paths in the jungle, we sometimes saw animals we didn’t quite recognize darting among the brush. We were told by locals in a village on a nearby island that because Royal Island had been so long isolated, since the old plantation days, some of the animals there had mutated by breeding and that they were perhaps unique in the world.
When Andrew came, several sailboats took refuge in Royal Harbor, their owners carefully tying the boats to the bollards and trees. It seemed like the prudent thing to do. They were probably grateful they’d made it to this harbor. Many anchorages in the Bahamas are wide open to certain fetches, but Royal Harbor was mostly enclosed. Yet all the boats were blown ashore, leaving owners and crews scrambling desperately up the sinister banks, wind screaming around them in blackness.
For several days they survived, some huddled amongst the crumbling cement ruins of the old plantation. Eventually, a plane flew over, and the pilot saw them. He was a well-known salvage expert on his way to a job in another part of the Bahamas. His savvy and searching eyes found the desperate people, and they survived to cruise again.
On our way back to the States, we stopped at Cat Cay toward the southern end of the Bimini chain. Cat is a carefully maintained, private island club with a marina that takes transients. More time had passed since the storm, and they were well on their way to recovery, though the signs of disaster were still everywhere. But what struck us with the most force was not the storm’s devastation of Cat, but its light treatment of Bimini just about 12 miles to the north. This little island has seen much tragedy, some quite recently, from such causes as plane crashes and fire. But that day Andrew, at his whim, had barely touched Bimini. They’d had a very difficult time, but nothing like what we saw at Cat Cay. It was like they’d been blessed with a mantle of benevolent protection. But who would have known as the storm roared across the Great Bahama Banks toward that island chain?
The news media thoroughly reported the devastation in Florida. They called it a “tight” storm, which it was. In many respects it was like a huge tornado. Its killing power was from its wind. Although they proclaimed it would, it didn’t pile up a huge storm surge because it didn’t cover so much of the ocean’s surface. They celebrated the fact that it mostly spared places like Miami and Fort Lauderdale. They marveled over the destruction just a bit farther south. Little was said about Chub, Royal, Cat, Bimini and the many other small islands and villages of the Bahamas. Today when you sail through these islands, you see few signs of the storm, the islanders going about their normal lives.
* * *
And this was Hugo. A few years earlier, Hugo swept his screaming way ashore on the U.S. East Coast. He came before we had made our fall pilgrimage down the coast to warmer waters, reminding us once again to never venture below the Chesapeake until after these storms stop.
You’ll remember the news coverage of his attack on Charleston, S.C. This beautiful city of charm was ravaged, cruelly and without mercy. Mansions that had faced the harbor for centuries still bravely stood, but the very paint was stripped off the walls. Roofs were gone. Ancient trees lay scattered about everywhere. Gardens were stripped of everything but mud. Despite the flooding, wind damage, and loss of power and water and homes, the city and its people pitched in and persevered. Today, it is as beautiful as ever.
Immediately north of the harbor, another story unfolded during the storm. The Ben Sawyer Bridge is an antiquated relic that still bears traffic across the Intracoastal Waterway from the mainland to Sullivans Island, one of many barrier islands along that section of the coast. It sits tall across the channel, conspicuous in the surrounding low land. Unfortunately, it’s not tall enough to allow many boats to pass under without an opening. When it does, it slowly swings around, creaking as it goes, to allow passage. This day its swing was far from slow. The winds lifted the great span, flung it around and crashed it at a crazy angle with one end in the water. It was as if to say, “Who are you to mess with nature?”
You don’t just pick up a bridge and put it back. For many months, the ICW to the north of Charleston was closed to most vessels. We and many others wouldn’t be able to use it to pass down the coast for southern latitudes. This wasn’t a serious problem for us because our boat at the time — a 47-foot motorsailer — was more than capable of making the passage offshore if we waited for good weather. Unlike some offshore detours, this was relatively easy because it didn’t involve unusually treacherous areas, such as Cape Hatteras, where one must head far out to sea to avoid dangerous shoals. And there were good inlets available.
We decided to wait for weather in the Waccamaw River, where there are ample anchorages, and then head out Winyah Bay, with its deep and marked entrance. Charleston, for us, was attainable in a day. It also had a deep “big ship” entrance. Even if the bridge had still been working, we knew we probably would have preferred to bypass that section of the ICW because of the storm’s damage. As we motorsailed down the coast dodging debris, we looked in at the marshy shore far to the west, wondering what must be there.
To the north of the Ben Sawyer Bridge had been the popular marina Wild Dunes, on the east side of the ICW. At its floating docks lay many nice yachts. The term “secure marinas” has perhaps a different connotation in the Lowcountry, compared to the way people use the term in other coastal areas. But this marina was considered by many in the area to be about as secure as you could get.
The Isle of Palms, a large residential island, lay between it and the sea. The marina was essentially on a canal on the mainland side of the island, and the fetch directly into the canal could only come from the short distance across the ICW. But there are no givens in a hurricane; nothing can be taken for granted. The surge from Hugo swept across the island and its homes and along the waterway. It easily lifted the docks and boats over their pilings, snapping the taller ones, and deposited the entire mess on another island on the western side of the ICW. The name of this island wasn’t quite as glamorous.
Onto Goat Island crashed the millions of dollars worth of boats — jumbled, crushed, twisted, many on top of others as if stirred in a giant pot with a huge ladle by a very angry, very large, very powerful cook who didn’t like the taste of her brew and dumped it out the back door. Today, the marina has been rebuilt and much improved, with the lessons of that storm in mind. They teach us, these storms.
The waterway stretches northward from this marina through mostly straight runs, with mile upon mile of marsh to its ocean side. Inlets tease the channels and currents as water rushes powerfully to and from the Atlantic. During full- and new-moon phases and nor’easters, the tides are sometimes high enough to cover all but the tips of the marsh grasses. It’s an ever-changing panorama of beauty to the fine homes sitting high on the banks, on the mainland side of the ICW, overlooking those marshes. But as we go a little farther north, that mainland side quickly becomes flat and low. The view isn’t the same.
McClellanville, with a population of less than 500, is low-down even by Lowcountry standards. And it’s nestled in South Carolina forest, surrounded on the land side by the near-wilderness territory of Francis Marion National Forest, which covers 260,000 acres. Francis Marion was the famed “swamp fox” who fooled the British during the Revolutionary War. He was successful in part because he was able to strike out and then quickly disappear into the marsh, swamp and deep forest of this remote area.
On the other side of the ICW, out toward the sea, the limitless haunting marshes of Cape Romain stretch far out into the Atlantic. Exploring some of the creeks through the marsh, you find yourself in shallows that are part marsh and part ocean without the familiar boundaries of beach or bank. At sea, looking inward, you can hardly see this very low land. You hardly know it’s there but for the lonely Cape Romain lighthouse.
Surrounded and somewhat isolated by this spectacular beauty, the small town of McClellanville lies on Jeremy Creek. Nearby Five Fathom Creek takes many local boats through the low, tidal marshes from the waterway out to the Atlantic. For years McClellanville has been a village of seafarers, many in the commercial shrimping business. You see their boats heading to and from the sea through the meandering inlets as you ply the waterway. When we’ve tied at the docks there, we haven’t done so for a luxury resort experience. That’s somewhere else. We’ve done so because of the feeling you get from being in a small village of good people living close to the earth and close to the sea.
On the night of Sept. 21, 1989, these good people were far too close — to the sea. As weather broadcasters flocked to Charleston and effected their hurricane lurch for the cameras, people in McClellanville hunkered down, knowing what they knew, not so much from television but from their bones and the blood of past generations that flowed through their veins. It wasn’t good. There’s a way of knowing, a feeling when the sea is going to rise up against you and become your mortal enemy. They tied their shrimp boats as well as possible. Many, perhaps most, of these boats were loaded with fuel, water and food, as is the case when you’re preparing to put out to sea. They secured what they could and waited.
As the wind rose — first moaning, then roaring, then screaming — the water followed. When we’ve walked down the streets of the village, we’ve noticed drainage ditches beside the road. They were tidal. Water is no stranger in the village. And it must have felt at home because it suddenly began swirling into the doors of the homes and rose so quickly that people scrambled to reach the attics and rafters, some going outside to hang on to the sloping roofs, plastered there by wind and rain and flying debris. Many had sought shelter in the school, and they also had to quickly climb to rafter level to avoid drowning.
Looking out toward the ocean, if one could have, one would have seen that it had advanced all the way into the forest on the mainland side of the ICW. Huge waves marched over the marshes that normally protected the town. Unlike Andrew, Hugo was broad and mounted up a massive surge of ocean when it came ashore on the concave coast. You’ve heard hurricane stories before, how unutterably terrible and frightening it is to be in the midst of one. I won’t belabor you with what those people endured — alone, isolated, far from the comforting infrastructures of high civilization — on their own. In a way they were like those people on the remote Bahamas islands. In these situations it is very simple: You survive or you don’t. There are no troops to come parading in as soon as the storm blows over, and no one expects them.
When we passed along the waterway the following spring, we were amazed to see the tall pines along the shore snapped off many feet in the air like a gigantic lawn mower had neatly trimmed them to a height specified by a meticulous Olympian god. We couldn’t understand how this could be.
The answer came when we stopped at McClellanville and talked with a friend. He told us that the “trim line” where all the trees had been snapped off was the level of the water when the worst winds came. Those winds snapped only the parts of the trees that were above water. When the storm roared on, allowing the Atlantic to rush back within its customary shores, it left the trees starkly standing out, cut at what had been the waterline. And it left the townspeople with a flooded, soggy, ruined mess.
The sea had filled all the wells, and there was no power, of course. Phone service was out of the question. And in those days, cell phones as we know them today were in their infancy. Trees and buildings that had stood for many years were gone. All the motor vehicles had been flooded, many wrecked. And it was a long way to go — down a road through the woods — to get to any place where help might be found.
At first blush, most of the food was ruined, except for the people on whom the mosquitoes feasted. The shrimp boats had been lifted on the flood and “were up in the trees,” high and dry. “Dry” was a real blessing then. But they were there, and they were stocked for sea. They held food, water, fuel, generators, tools and so much more. People immediately set to work on several gasoline-powered pumps. They’d been submerged in saltwater, but they hadn’t been running when the sea came ashore, so the people — with the know-how of seamen and mechanics — got them running. The next order of business was to pump the saltwater off the top of the wells. Provisions, tools and equipment were taken down from the stranded fleet, and the town coped, gradually improving their lot.
Jimmy Leland, then owner of some shrimp boats and a fuel dock, told me much of this on one of our many stops at his docks. He’s now passed, and I value the stories he shared. He told me that after a day or so they began to become concerned. They were worried not about themselves, but about family and friends who lived in “other parts.” They figured these folks were probably wanting to know how they’d fared — or whether they’d fared at all.
So a couple of men started walking. They came across cars abandoned and not working. They found pay phones that didn’t work. They kept walking until they finally got to a phone that was working, and they called their senator — who else? They wanted to know if his office could help in getting the word out to their relatives that “we’re all OK.”
“Whoever it was that answered in Sen. Fritz Hollings’ office couldn’t believe what she was hearing. … With all the hullabaloo about Charleston, I guess they’d kind of forgotten about us or figured there wasn’t anything left here anyway.”
The next day the people of McClellanville stood along the streets, watching in amazement as trucks and National Guardsmen rolled into town. “It was like we were being invaded, but it was a pretty good kind of invasion.”
The town has moved on and returned to the rhythm of Lowcountry living. The shrimp boats still go out when they can find shrimp. Fishermen still fish. And it’s still a nice place to visit.
Even today as we cruise that part of the South Carolina coast on the ICW we see a few stark tree trunks, snapped off clean, well above the forest floor. When we pass offshore, we remember what it was like that first trip south after Hugo. And we try to imagine what it would have been like at sea during the storm. We can’t even begin. We revel in the pretty days, hunker down in the bad, and know that it could be — that some day it may be — much, much worse.
* * *
I’ve experienced the wrath of many hurricanes, both during the fact and after. They give birth to amazing stories. Most of the stories aren’t covered by the news media, but they’re all important. When we remember, we can sometimes better handle what roars our way when our turn comes. And when we remember, we can feel good that we’re still around, despite it all. But we should never feel so good that we take anything for granted with these monsters.
This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue.