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NWS Charleston, SC - Hurricane Hugo
Hurricane Hugo
September 21-22, 1989

Hurricane Hugo Visible Satellite Image Before Landfall Hurricane Hugo Infrared Satellite Image After Landfall

Interview with Charleston Mayor Joe Riley

Joe Riley, the Mayor of Charleston, shared his memories of Hugo along with some lessons that were learned from the storm. He also has some good reminders about being prepared for the next storm! Check out the full interview here.


Hurricane Hugo was a Cape Verde hurricane that became a Category 5 (on the Saffir-Simpson Scale) storm in the Atlantic, then raked the northeast Caribbean as a Category 4 storm before turning northwest between an upper-level high pressure system to the north and upper-level low pressure system to the south. Hugo made landfall just north of Charleston, South Carolina at Sullivan's Island around midnight September 22, 1989 as a Category 4 storm with estimated maximum sustained winds of 135-140 mph and a minimum central pressure of 934 mb (27.58 inches of Hg). Hugo produced tremendous wind and storm surge damage along the coast and even produced hurricane force wind gusts all the way into western North Carolina. In fact, Hugo produced the highest storm tide heights ever recorded along the U.S. East Coast.

Hurricane Hugo track - credit: NOAA's National Hurricane Center Upper-level weather pattern during Hugo - image courtesy of Dr. Jon Nese at Penn State University
Hurricane Hugo's Track Upper-level Air Patterns
(credit: NOAA's National Hurricane Center) (credit: Jon Nese at Penn State University)

At the time, Hurricane Hugo was the strongest storm to strike the United States in the previous 20-year period. The hurricane was also the nation's costliest in terms of monetary losses with damage estimates standing at $7 billion. It is estimated that there were 49 deaths directly related to the storm, 26 of which occurred in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.


Most buildings in downtown Charleston sustained significant damage, but the worst destruction occurred in beach towns north of Charleston such as Sullivan's Island and the Isle of Palms where the majority of homes were rendered uninhabitable due to the fact that this area received the strongest winds and highest storm surge. Many old trees were toppled by Hugo's winds, including those at Drayton Hall in West Ashley (image 1 / image 2 - images courtesy of Drayton Hall). Logging operations in the Francis Marion National Forest were permanently ended due to the storm felling more than 1 billion board-feet of lumber (approximately 70% of lumber-quality trees). As you can see from this image, most of the tree damage occurred along and to the right of Hugo's track.

Fortunately, Hugo made landfall just north of Charleston as a track slightly farther south along the coast would have produced tremendous flooding in downtown Charleston. This can clearly be seen in the images below (credit: NOAA's Coastal Services Center). In addition, the relatively fast motion of Hugo diminished the amount of erosion along the coast.

Furthermore, the South Carolina Emergency Management Division estimates that if a storm with a similar track and intensity struck today, there would be $8 billion in damage in the state alone with over 21,000 homes destroyed. Combine such a storm with the evacuation problems that occurred during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and the setup will be prime for a major disaster!


  • NOAA's Photo Library
  • "The State" Newspaper's Photo Archive
  • Damage to Folly Beach, SC from Hugo Damage at Folly Beach, SC from Hugo. (image courtesy of McKevlins Surf Shop)

    Damage to Isle of Palms, SC from Hugo Damage at Isle of Palms, SC from Hugo. (image courtesy of "The State" newspaper)

    Picture of Lincoln High School in McClellanville, SC after Hugo Damage to Lincoln High School in McClellanville, SC. The storm surge entered the building which unfortunately was being used as a shelter during the storm.

    Picture of the Ben Sawyer Bridge to Sullivan's Island, SC after Hugo Damage to the Ben Sawyer Bridge heading to/from Sullivan's Island, SC. (image courtesy of NOAA)

    Meteorological Stats

    Hurricane Hugo's wind swath across South Carolina and North Carolina
    (credit: NOAA's National Weather Service)
  • Charleston, SC (Naval Station) - 137
  • Charleston, SC (Downtown-Custom House) - 108
  • North Charleston, SC (Airport) - 98

    Hurricane Hugo's maximum storm tides across South Carolina
    (credit: NOAA's National Weather Service)
  • Bulls Bay, SC - 19.8
  • Isle of Palms, SC - 15.0
  • Sullivan's Island, SC - 13.0
  • Folly Beach, SC - 11.9
  • Charleston, SC (Downtown-Custom House) - 10.4

    Hurricane Hugo's rainfall totals
    (credit: NOAA's Hydrometeorological Prediction Center)
  • Edisto Island, SC - 10.28
  • Mount Pleasant, SC - 8.10
  • Savannah, GA - 6.10
  • North Charleston, SC (Airport) - 5.90
  • Meteorological/Technological Advancements Since 1989

    The National Weather Service was using a network of WSR-57 and WSR-74 radars in 1989. Today, the NWS utilizes the WSR-88D network of doppler radars, which have the advantage of providing wind speed and direction data. This information is crucial to the hurricane forecaster as the storm nears land to help make a determination of the storm's maximum winds and structure.

    There are many more satellites today than there were back in 1989, all of which include much more sophisticated equipment to monitor and measure the atmosphere, particularly winds and moisture. Microwave satellite imagery, which can "see" through clouds, is now utilized by hurricane forecasters to ascertain information on a tropical cyclone's structure. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the parent agency of the NWS, currently operates more than 15 meteorological satellites.

    Reconnaissance Aircraft
    "Hurricane Hunters" regularly fly into potential and existing tropical cyclones to collect data in and near the storm to aid in hurricane forecasting, including information on storm size, structure, and development. Although such missions existed in 1989, their frequency and amount of data collected was not as great as it is today.

    Hurricane Forecasting
    Improvements in observing systems such as satellites, buoys, and aircraft reconnaissance, and upgrades to numerical weather prediction models have led to improvements in hurricane forecasting. For example, the National Hurricane Center's average 24 hour track error in 1989 was around 100 nautical miles, compared to just 60 nautical miles today. This may not seem like a lot, but it is considering that it costs roughly $1 million to evacuate each mile of coastline.

    Additional Links

  • NOAA's National Hurricane Center - Storm Summary
  • NOAA's Hydrometeorological Prediction Center - Storm Summary
  • NOAA's National Weather Service - Service Assessment
  • National Research Council - Report
  • USACE/FEMA - Assessment
  • NOAA's SLOSH Model Run for Hugo
  • NOAA's Coastal Services Center - Historical Tropical Cyclone Tracks
  • South Carolina State Climate Office - South Carolina Tropical Cyclones
  • Hurricane Preparedness Information

  • National Weather Service
    Charleston Weather Forecast Office
    5777 South Aviation Avenue
    Charleston, S.C. 29406-6162
    (843) 744-0303

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