Cover Story: 20 Years Ago - Lessons of Hugo

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - 20 years ago at midnight Tuesday, Hurricane Hugo hit the Carolinas.  Hours later it slammed Charlotte.  Trees were down.  Hundreds of thousands without power.  Destruction everywhere.  If Hugo hit right now, would we be ready?

It's been two decades since one of the most destructive hurricanes in our country's history hit.  An event, that people who live here will never forget.

A hurricane in Charlotte?.. people laughed 20 years ago.. we'd never seen a hurricane come this far inland.

It was supposed to weaken rapidly and pass through Raleigh.

Now we know it can happen.

Though it took away our sense of security.. it left us better prepared.

"It shocked me.."

20 years ago Rich Granger was a rookie firefighter riding the back of Engine 22 in northeast Charlotte.. on duty.. the night Hurricane Hugo hit.

No way it was going to come to the Queen City everyone said... it made a liar out of a lot of people says Rich Granger.. now a deputy fire chief.

"We just went from call to call," he said.  "Trees down on houses, cars.. Uprooted gas lines. Just nothing that we don't experience on a day to day. Just the sheer volume was different."

Near hurricane force winds.. gusts up to 87 miles an hour that knocked the glass out of skyscrapers.

You know the rest.  In the Charlotte area alone-- 700-thousand without power.  80-thousand trees uprooted.  Some were without electricity for 18 days.

To say we were unprepared is an understatement.

"There's so much that we learned from that."

Bud Cesena now Chief of Police for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.. was a Patrol Sergeant with CMPD 20 years ago.

He says Hugo and other storms exposed a need for the city and county to have a better command and control structure..

Cesena helped build the one that's in the Law Enforcement Center now.. completed in 2003.. that acts as a war room for Charlotte-Mecklenburg in an emergency.

"It just makes managing the catastrophe or disaster whether it be natural or manmade it makes that run much more smoothly," says Cesena.  "Everybody has a function and everyone does their function."

"This is our Emergency Operations Facility."

Duke Energy's version of the war room.. utility spokesman Andy Thompson showed us.

Complete with Radar and satellite maps.  Banks of phones.   And computers.  Where the power company can coordinate its entire response in a disaster.

Duke didn't have this room when Hugo hit.

"If this were to happen tonight it would really be an apples and oranges comparison in a lot of ways," says Thompson.

He says with weather forecasting so much better.. crews today would be positioned to get to work once the storm has passed.

Duke now has mutual-aid agreements with other utilities to draw repair workers from other states.

Lessons learned from Hugo that have been put to work in ice storms and on 9/11.

If Hugo were to hit tonight..

Bud Cesena says, "We wouldn't be scrambling for answers. We would have a template for success as opposed to wondering what the heck our next step would be."

By getting the shock in '89 most of us are better prepared too.. we have the water and flashlights.. and pay attention to the warnings.

Better planning and there's better communications between public agencies and the private sector.. it means if a Hugo or something like it were to hit tonight while it would be bad.. the response and the recovery would be a lot better than it was 20 years ago.