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I Was There: Hurricane Hugo

In 1989, the South Carolina coast was devastated by one of the nation's most severe storms. As part of the Guard’s response, then–Second Lieutenant Rodney Jenkins helped maintain order on an island whose link to the mainland had been destroyed.
LTC (then-2LT) Rodney Jenkins led a platoon in protecting properties that were left standing after the evacuation of Sullivan’s Island. Photo by Joshua Aaron Photography
LTC (then-2LT) Rodney Jenkins led a platoon in protecting properties that were left standing after the evacuation of Sullivan’s Island. Photo by Joshua Aaron Photography

If you were on duty for the Guard during a significant moment in history and are interested in telling your story, let us know at editor@GXonline.com

On Sept. 21, 1989, Hurricane Hugo hit the South Carolina coast. More than 120,000 residents of Charleston County (including 1,600 from Sullivan's Island—one of the areas hardest hit) were evacuated a few hours before the height of the storm reached the region. In its wake, the hurricane had killed 26 people, injured more than 300 others and caused damages estimated at $7 billion. With more than half of the state declared federally recognized disaster areas, Soldiers from the South Carolina Army National Guard were activated to provide cleanup support and security. Then–Second Lieutenant (and now Lieutenant Colonel) Rodney Jenkins of C Company, 1/118th Infantry Battalion, led his platoon in providing security for hundreds of households on Sullivan's Island, where the storm had destroyed the community’s primary link to the mainland.

In 1989, I was working at the Charleston Naval Base and Naval Shipyard [which closed in 1996] in the radiological control department. I was not full-time Guard; I was a weekender. Initially, Hurricane Hugo backed off the coast, but then it came back in pretty hard. So when it hit, it hit with a vengeance.

It was the biggest national disaster I’d ever had to deal with. When my unit, C Company, 1/118th Infantry Battalion, South Carolina Army National Guard, deployed, we drove from Walterboro, SC, to the Charleston area. On I-26, there were lots of downed trees and cars on the side of the road with their windows blown out. They were literally cutting the roads open as we drove through. It took us hours to get there. We finally got into the downtown Charleston area, and I was further deployed to Sullivan’s Island, which had been evacuated.

We flew over on helicopters. Going over to the island, we saw that the Ben Sawyer Bridge was turned sideways. Half of it was up in the air, and the other half was down in the river. There were lots of power lines down and lots of water.

The majority of my mission was to provide security and make sure no one was coming on the island to steal anything from the citizens. I stayed there for about three weeks, securing the area.

Once we got there, we policed the island, so there wasn’t any looting. We did have a few people try to come onto the island from the back end, but we were able to detain them. Some of those folks came by boat, and there were a few folks who swam over. They hadn’t thought that far ahead. The channel pushes people out. It’s a dangerous swim.

‘A WAR ZONE’

There was unbelievable devastation—water all over the place, downed trees and not much electricity available across the island. Looking at the cars on the side of the road surrounded by the river of water and the big semitrucks that were pushed on their sides, the severity was obvious. It was like a war zone.

We did some cleanup over the first few weeks, and we checked on the people we knew were still on the island to make sure they were OK. Some of them just didn’t believe the storm would make as much of an impact as it did. They had waterfront homes. They had experienced something they never wanted to experience again. Talking to some of them afterward, they described the wind gusts and the water—some of the waves were up to 18 feet high.

There was one house in particular on Sullivan’s Island that was moved off of its foundation by the storm and onto the highway. Everything in the house was intact. It actually received more damage when they tried to move it back onto its foundation. There were other houses that were completely torn apart by the storm. We saw a roof in one location and the house it came off in another.

There was just damage and devastation all over the place. I have not seen any storms since that have compared to Hugo in South Carolina. We’d had some wind during previous storms, but we thought it would blow by like all the others. One of the ones I can remember before Hugo was Hurricane David [which delivered winds of 92 mph to Hilton Head Island, SC, on Sept. 4, 1979]. It had some impact on the East Coast, but it was mostly lots of rain. It was nowhere near comparable to Hugo. I did not get called to support the Guard’s response to Hurricane Katrina, so I can’t talk about the devastation there, but it sounded very similar to what we had in South Carolina during Hugo.

During Hugo, we had a tree come down in the yard at the house where I grew up, in St. Stephen near Charleston, but there was no major damage. My parents live far enough away from the coast that there was no strong impact. I grew up there and left when I went to college. It’s a small, close-knit community—a one-traffic-light type of town. I went to South Carolina State University and was commissioned there through the ROTC. I joined the Guard a year or two after commissioning.

READY FOR THE NEXT ONE

Ironically, I’m now a lieutenant colonel and the deputy J3 at the South Carolina Joint Forces Headquarters, and I handle domestic operations on a day-to-day basis. Any time we have a hurricane coming through, I think about what happened with Hugo. The staff here is ready to take on the tasks that are required to support during any hurricanes or natural disasters. So it was my first experience that prepared me for this job, dealing with this kind of devastation again.

People were very happy to see the National Guard on Sullivan’s Island after Hugo. They appreciated that we were on the island to keep their homes safe. And people whose homes were still standing were happy to see that no damage was done.