“Please leave now. This storm is larger than the entire state of South Carolina…”
That’s the warning that was being broadcast twenty years ago on WCSC-TV in Charleston, South Carolina. We never saw it, and never really had any intention of leaving. We were 200 miles inland; moving over land always knocked a hurricane down. We’d get rain and some wind, but nothing bad.
Yeah, right. Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston as a Category 4 storm and was still generating Category 1 winds when it crossed through my area. Our power went out about 10:30 PM (and would be out for a week) and when we ventured out the next morning, 14 trees in our yard were down. We watched the morning news on a TV in our van.
Five miles away, my old high school was an evacuation center. It had been chosen for the same reason that we didn’t leave – 2oo miles inland, people should be safe there. Tonight, on the worst night in the state’s history, our gym played host to about 175 people, and the football coach was in charge.
He had been the football coach – after the previous leader’s retirement, he had been picked to also serve as the new school principal. He had been at the school 20+ years; he had coached my brother when he played football and was coach when I was in school. If you judged him by his won-lost record you wouldn’t have been impressed, but that wasn’t his fault. We were the smallest high school in the state and he never had much talent to work with. Kids had to play both offense and defense and the other teams just wore us down. The coach felt it was more important to teach his players how to play the game fairly, deal with the wonderful moments as well as the letdowns, and help them become better people.
The wind was coming up and things were getting dicey outside, but in the gym everything was going well. Suddenly glass exploded along one side of the gym. A quick inspection revealed something ominous: The school’s “weight room”, really a small concrete building near the gym, had just been blown down.
The Coach got that feeling – the feeling you can’t describe, but you get when you just know that something bad is about to happen. He tried to shove that thought out of his head but it wouldn’t leave, and after a moment he decided to follow his gut.
Outside, he ordered, I think we all need to be in the school halls. Certainly there was much groaning and complaining but the coach wouldn’t budge. Come on, people, we’re going into the halls.
A few moments later the gym roof caved in. The basketball floor was cut almost precisely in half – from one end line to the centerline there was no damage, but past that… a massive pile of wood, glass and stone. And in the middle of the night, in that wind, rescue efforts would have been impossible.
The rest of the night had to be hell – every creak and groan probably sounded like something else coming down – but the morning came and the wind abated. And everyone was safe.
Good Call, Coach.