ONLY the faint odor of paint betrays the massive renovation of venerable First Baptist Church here. Looking at the tasteful pale-blue walls and lovely pews, a visitor would never guess that a year ago the interior was in shambles: Extensive repairs were under way, made necessary by Hurricane Hugo's 130-mile winds of six months earlier. The change since last April in this lovely church typifies the progress that this city and its neighbors have made. A year ago Charleston and surrounding communities were operating on two levels: Open for business after months of herculean effort, but still facing immense additional building repair and land cleanup.
Although the rat-tat-tat of hammers can still be heard, most of the necessary repair work has now been done. Last week the fabled Mennonite Disaster Service, the last volunteer repair crew still here, finally felt able to leave for home after a year and a half of helping Charleston-area residents rebuild their communities.
New roofs top many modest and sprawling homes alike in Johns Island, Sullivans Island, and the Isle of Palms, three nearby areas; a year ago many roofs were temporarily patched.
Homeowners and even towns now have the luxury of turning to peripheral repairs. On the Isle of Palms, decimated by tide and wind in the September 1989 storm, a homeowner is fixing his bulkhead - ``one thing we could let go,'' his wife says.
Up the coast to the north the fishing town of McClellanville, almost literally flattened by Hugo, this week has turned to replacing its sidewalks. ``It's been a year and a half now,'' says McClellanville Mayor Rutledge Leland, who owns a fish wholesale and retail firm in town. ``Everybody is back in their homes, but we're still doing some work - mostly rebuilding sidewalks, which got torn up pretty bad by the hurricane.'' Most businessmen and fishermen ``are pretty much back in business,'' he says.
But not back to normal, he says: The aftereffect of the hurricane ``is going to have some long-term economic effect on a lot of businesses'' and individuals - ``there's more debt now.'' Low-interest loans obtained through the federal government made rebuilding possible for many, Mayor Leland says, ``but a loan is a loan - you have to repay it.'' A lot of people and businesses in Charleston and other nearby communities also had to go further in debt to repair hurricane damage.
A few people whose homes were most severely damaged on Isle of Palms are only now able to move back into them. Although these are extreme cases, sizable numbers of Charlestonians spent weeks or months with friends before they resumed living in their homes.
Even now the experience remains a topic of conversation: ``It was nine months before I could live again in my own house,'' one Charlestonian told another last week in a downtown art store that featured paintings of the area.
Even as area residents find their lives finally settling down, Washington is trying to draw lessons on dealing with natural disasters. Last month the Government Accounting Office (GAO) reported on the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in dealing with the hurricane and the California earthquake, which followed shortly thereafter.
From the early days of the hurricane South Carolina Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) sharply criticized FEMA for footdragging and inefficiency. The GAO said in effect that the senator was right: It found ``some problem areas in all phases of disaster management - preparedness, immediate response, and recovery.''
The GAO recommended that FEMA improve ``disaster-related administration, training, and coordination activities.''