Unbattening Hatches For Tourists' Return

From elections to trash collections, regular living resumes after Hugo - a letter from Charleston, S.C.

FLICKERING candles illuminate the elegant beauty of Charleston's historic homes and gardens these evenings. For the 43rd year Historic Charleston Foundation's tour of city homes and gardens - a top tourist attraction - is under way. This lovely city that rice-plantation money built has made a remarkable return to near-normal, six months after hurricane Hugo did enormous destruction with its 135-mile-per-hour winds and tidal surge.

But life in Charleston and other hard-hit areas of the Carolinas is operating on two tracks this spring. On one track, daily existence moves increasingly into prestorm routines, from tourism to local elections to trash collection.

On the other, aftereffects of the hurricane remain all too evident: Repair work yet to be done is everywhere. Herculean efforts continue to clear felled trees from thousands of tangled acres, clean up mounds of debris on barrier islands, and repair hundreds of buildings with still-gashed exteriors, extensive interior damage, or temporary roofs of plywood or flapping plastic.

As days of white dogwood replace weeks of red azaleas, the whine of power saws and the whapping of hammers still resound, weekday and weekend alike, from the inland city of Manning to the north-lying Isle of Palms to less-affluent parts of Charleston.

``There aren't enough carpenters and roofers in the whole world to put Charleston back together,'' says the wry owner of a storm-battered house on historic Ashley Street. ``Until eight weeks ago I cooked on a hot plate in the bathroom - and my house wasn't badly damaged, compared to all my neighbors'.''

Repairmen originally estimated they would need three months to put Charleston and nearby communities back to rights. But they have already been here six months, and many conclude they are only half-finished. ``I guess I'll stay five or six more months,'' sighs a husky Alabaman who has spent the past six hauling downed trees out of woods and lagoons. He likes the money but is tired of living in motels two states from home: He longs to return to a more prosaic life.

Slowly but surely, most Carolinians are returning to that sort of life themselves. This week residents of Folly Beach elected three City Council members, and the town of Sullivan's Island, splintered by Hugo's 15-foot tidal surge, resumed its pre-Hugo garbage and trash collection schedule.

Business leaders and educators continued to debate the accuracy of televised reports of cheating on national education tests which used South Carolina as an example. And the Confederate Home and College in downtown Charleston resumed its alfresco Tea Room - featuring she-crab soup and melt-in-your-mouth Huguenot tortes - in the courtyard, where one of three oak trees remains.

This week the box office opened for in-person ticket sales for the May start of the Spoleto festival of classical music and dance, with half the tickets already sold by mail. And most Charleston area tourist attractions - essential to the city's important tourist industry - are operating again.

This is not the first time Charlestonians fought back from destruction. There was Union Army shelling in the Civil War, the big 1886 earthquake, fires, and other hurricanes.

To add insult to Hugo's injury, last December's unusually cold weather burst pipes in many homes. Charlestonians met this, too, with resolve - and even humor. ``My brothers and their families were all here,'' says a resident of suburban James Island. ``We didn't even have enough running water to flush the toilets.''

What to do? The eight inches of snow that uncharacteristically blanketed the area came to the rescue. ``Did you know,'' she explains puckishly, ``it takes three gallons of snow, melted, to make one gallon of water? And it takes two gallons to flush the tank!''

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