11 March 2008


a half century ago, during the early years of the cold war between the u.s. and the u.s.s.r., military paranoia was everywhere. it's something my generation grew up with -- the fear of being vaporized in sudden nuclear war. i recall once, sitting in a barber shop waiting for my turn, and reading an article in some magazine like "argosy" or "field and stream", about a social experiment in which a family was approached at home, and if they agreed to take part, would have a half hour to gather all the belongings that they thought they would need to survive for two weeks in the wild. the article documented their flurry of activity, choosing and discarding and packing clothing, food, camping gear, water, a first aid kit, and other essentials, then high-tailing it for the tall timber. (i don't recall what part of the country this was, but it clearly wasn't manhattan.) the article went on to describe the two week bivouac, noting which items proved useful, and which did not. (e.g., a glass jar and a funnel, submerged in a stream, became a makeshift trap for small fish, which were then used as bait to catch larger ones.) the intended object lesson, to think now about the choices that you, the reader, would make in a similar disaster situation, sunk in. my own conclusions evolved over the years, informed by having grown up on a farm, by becoming a boy scout, by serving in the military, and by working and living outdoors for much of my life.

in a totally unexpected fashion (as nearly all emergencies are), all this preparation was put to the test during the several days leading up to 22 september 1989. my ex and i had just moved from tucson to charleston, sc, where she was doing a year's internship for her PhD in psychology. we found a pleasant little rental house on pleasant pines street in mount pleasant (department of redundancy department), a charleston suburb. imagine our chagrin as, during those several days, hurricane hugo was spawned off the west coast of africa, crossed the atlantic, and approached the southeast coast of the u.s., eventually directing itself like an arrow straight at us. the governor ordered all residents to evacuate inland. so there we were, playing out that old cold war scenario for real. we quickly jammed computers, clothing, important documents, CB radios and other essentials into our two vehicles, shut off the electricity, put "X"s of masking tape on all the windows, called to reserve a motel room in the state capitol, columbia, locked up and hit the road. along with about 130,000 other evacuees, all trying to hit the same freeway inland at the same time.

the first 90 miles were gridlock, and took about six hours. after crossing another interstate, traffic thinned out a bit, and we finally found our motel in columbia -- thankful we had made reservations, among all those poor people who hadn't thought to. that night hugo made landfall with the eye of the hurricane centered on our neighborhood. typical male, i had wanted to remain in charleston to experience the event, but my ex told me that was crazy (she was right). so instead we both slept through it as the storm, weakened by passage over land, swept through columbia sometime after midnight.

we spent several days as evacuees, before getting the word that residents were being allowed back into charleston. the journey home was spent mostly in awestruck silence, passing through a formerly-forested landscape in which all the grown trees were snapped off like matchstick, their tops mostly pointing in the same wind-driven direction. our dread was that the twin humps of the cooper river bridge might be down, preventing access to our home. what a glorious relief to see that magnificent bridge still standing! and equal relief when, after picking our way slowly through streets still littered with storm debris, we discovered that the only damage our house had sustained was a tree fallen across one corner of the roof. all else was safe and intact.

for several weeks we were without power, so survival mode continued -- stocking up on bottled water, a camp stove and fuel, and essential foods; clearing debris from our yard and street; and opening our garage as a storage unit for a friend whose beachfront apartment had been flooded by the tide surge. by the way, with no heated water during that time, cold showers at oh-dark-thirty were no picnic!!!

hugo's winds were clocked at 135 mph, with gusts to 150. enough to devastate a wide swath of the francis marion national forest, north and east of charleston. which, in an ironic twist, provided me with my own job that year, working as a wildlife tech for the u.s. forest service, doing habitat recovery for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, whose nesting trees had taken a serious hit. but that's a whole 'nother story.