BOSTON — DECISIVE action by state and local officials saved many lives when Hurricane Hugo roared into Charleston, S.C., Thursday night. Officials in South Carolina and neighboring states ordered several hundred thousand area residents to evacuate inland. People sought refuge in public shelters, hotels, and with relatives and friends.
When the tempest struck, its 135-mile-an-hour winds and 17-foot-high storm-surge tides flattened and flooded buildings in one of the nation's oldest and most historic cities. At least 21 people were reported dead in the Carolinas, Virginia, and New York.
Colin McAdie, meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, says the public reaction shows people have learned the lesson of previous storms. ``I think the public response was quite good. I think this was due primarily to the organization of local emergency-management officials,'' he says.
Grant Peterson, associate director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), praised the actions of state and local authorities in a Friday press conference. ``Their actions have saved literally hundreds of lives,'' he said.
The costs of preparing for a hurricane run into the tens of millions of dollars. But the precautions helped the area avoid an even higher loss of life.
Hugo left at least 27 dead and more than 50,000 homeless on the Caribbean islands it rolled across on its voyage across the Atlantic. At least 960,000 people in the Carolinas lost electrical power, including 200,000 in Charlotte, N.C., which also took a direct hit. The resort community of Garden City Beach, S.C., near Myrtle Beach, was reported to be almost completely leveled.
President Bush Friday declared seven South Carolina counties a disaster area, making them eligible for federal aid to rebuild housing and roads. Bush earlier declared both the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico disaster areas. Meanwhile, Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan and several US congressmen arrived in Puerto Rico Saturday for a fact-finding mission in the affected areas.
``St. Croix [in the Virgin Islands] is devastated, absolutely devastated,'' says FEMA's Mr. Peterson. He said relief officials are facing great difficulty in restoring electrical power to the island, because 90 percent of the power poles have been toppled and the generating plant ``itself is in jeopardy.''
George Hutchens, American Red Cross vice president for programs and services, says there is no doubt the amount of money his organization needs for relief operations ``will far exceed our normal disaster budget.'' The Red Cross currently has about $18 million on hand for disaster relief, he says.
At press time, Dave Langsten, assistant director of eastern relief operations of the Red Cross, said the storm will cost the agency an estimated $38 million. Both the Red Cross and the Salvation Army have also opened disaster-relief funds to support their operations operations in the affected areas.
Hugo was the sixth hurricane and eighth tropical storm of the season, which begins in June and runs until November. The current hurricane season has now reached the ``average'' mark of nine tropical storms.
The ninth storm, Iris, followed Hugo's track but was never able to develop the 74-mile-an-hour winds that would have made it a hurricane. The National Hurricane Center downgraded Iris to a tropical depression Thursday afternoon, and by evening it had disappeared as an organized storm.
``Iris was blown apart by the outflow [of wind] from Hugo,'' Mr. McAdie says.
Anyone wishing to make hurricane relief donations to the American Red Cross may call 1-800-4534-9000. Contributions can also be mailed to The Salvation Army, PO Box 5378, Atlanta, Ga. 30307. Checks should be marked ``for disaster relief.''
The Red Cross telephone number for hurricane relief was garbled in yesterday's Monitor. It is: 1-800-453-9000.