SI Vault
Gary Smith
October 23, 1989
I was on a highway deep into the New Mexico desert when Hurricane Hugo hit my town. I bent toward the radio speaker, leaning in against the static, listening to a man who was reporting live from a hotel lobby 12 blocks from my house in Charleston, S.C. He was describing how the roof above his head had flown off into the night, how chandeliers were crashing around his feet, how sheets of horizontal rain were slamming the windows. I looked out the window of my rental car: yucca plants, tumbleweed and cactus in the still moonlight, no moisture for miles except the recent road kill. I caught a red-eye home.
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October 23, 1989

Hugo Dealt A Blow To This Charlestonian's Manhood

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I couldn't write. The scene, as I looked out the window over my desk, was too horrific. Enough trees had been snapped, according to local experts, to build 660,000 new homes—I was certain they were talking about the yard across the street alone. I couldn't jog. My neighbor had warned me that the grandchildren of the grandchildren of a man caught jogging under these circumstances would be forever marked by other Charlestonians, and besides, I didn't have the heart for it. The roar of chain saws, generators, work trucks and military helicopters filled the air. The parks and playgrounds were defoliated, desolate. National Guardsmen stood on our corners with bayoneted M-16s, enforcing a 7 p.m. curfew.

So I just worked, keeping my eyes open to see what a hurricane does to people, my ears open to hear the stories. I saw some people praying for help to the same skies that had sent them Hugo, some sobbing that they hated this place and wanted to die. Some quadrupling the price of chain saws or a bag of ice, some knocking on every door and asking if anyone needed help. There was no thinly hidden glee in what happened here, the kind you might find in other American cities, where men want to forget, to take a wrecking ball to the old and replace it with the new. Charleston is in love with its past. But I could see an animation in the men working in all the yards and streets, a glow that came from something else. The whole city was shut down, and men confined to offices for years, men decades past their time on sporting fields, seemed almost to relish the days of muscle work that lay before them, the liberation from desks and computers, the massive physical project to be attacked as a neighborhood team.

Each night, picking our way through the absolute darkness with candles or flashlights, we gathered around a neighbor's charcoal grill in groups of 10 or 12, cooking meat and fish that had to be eaten before it spoiled, drinking daiquiris and beers chilled with hard-won ice, and swapping tales. Late one night, when we'd had enough daiquiris, my neighbor and I dodged the sweeping floodlights of the patrolling police cars and broke curfew to get one more look at that monstrous river crane belched up by the storm surge. Some small sliver of manhood, this adventure would retrieve for me, I was sure.

But it is the stories of survival, not wreckage, that we keep telling and retelling, as if to reassure ourselves. The story of the golden retriever who swam from a barrier island to the mainland during the storm and was reunited with its owner. Of the man who climbed from his disintegrating boat and hugged the stanchion of a ruptured, wildly swinging bridge all night. Of the two people walking past a battered house on nearby Folly Beach, hearing a strange flapping noise inside and discovering a live dolphin inside the living room—six days after the hurricane.

Still, I think about the man with nine trees through his roof. About the people in a public shelter in a nearby town, who climbed on chairs as the flood rose to their throats, broke through the ceiling panels and held their babies up to the air-conditioning vents to keep them from drowning. About the local people found dead in the rubble.

I'm not sure what I'm going to do the next time a hurricane comes to Charleston. Somehow I keep getting this feeling I'm going to lose my manhood again.

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