My Hurricane Experience | Sullivan's Island Hurricane Hugo

Listen to Authorities About Sandy: My Hurricane Experience

Yes, this is the first non-customer service topic I have addressed since I launched Customers That Stick back in March of 2012. With superstorm Sandy approaching the Northeast, I thought perhaps I could do some good by relating my family’s experience with a hurricane. If it makes a difference to one person, it will be worth it. We will resume our normal content on Thursday.

I have lived a great deal of my life in hurricane prone areas. Growing up on the coast of the Carolinas and now residing in Florida, hurricane season keeps me with an ever watchful eye trained on the Atlantic.

My family went through Hurricane Hugo in Charleston, SC in 1989. I was at college just starting the school year when Hugo, a Category 4 storm, was threatening the coast. Here are my memories of the storm:

My Hurricane Experience | Sullivan's Island Hurricane Hugo

Sullivan’s Island, SC after Hurricane Hugo

  • I remember watching the news of the storm in the lobby of a hotel because the school year had just started and our television wasn’t hooked up yet.
  • I remember worrying all night as my parents rode out the storm in the hallway of my childhood home, with a grandfather whose mind was gone. The phones were down, and cell phones were still a few years from entering our lives.
  • Afterwards, I remember arguing with my mother about whether or not I should leave the University and bring them supplies. Charleston was cleaned out, and they had not been prepared. She kept insisting that I not make the trip, but she could not remember why she did not want me to.
  • I remember buying what I am still convinced was the last generator in Athens, GA.
  • I remember driving with a car so loaded with supplies that I could not see out of the back windows.
  • I remember the late-night approach into Charleston on I-26, the felled trees, the haunting dearth of other drivers on the road.
  • I remember the moment I realized why my mother did not want me to make the trip. Charleston was under martial law. There was a curfew and a roadblock on the Interstate. I was never going to make it into town. I kept driving anyway, and oddly, there was no roadblock.
  • I remember entering the city after midnight, and I wondered if this is what it would have looked like if the Soviets had ever launched. Trees were down wholesale, roofs removed, business signs twisted into grotesques shapes. The eeriness of entering a city with not a single other car on the road, not a light lit, is indescribable – at least by my meager pen. Only a few years out of high school, I thought of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow Out of this stony rubbish?”
  • I remember missing the turn to my friend’s house, a turn I had made hundreds of times, because the silhouette of the city was so disfigured as to be unrecognizable.
  • I remember running into very tense police officers. They shined a spotlight in my face, hands on their sidearms, and told me I could not go to my parent’s house. They said I had to go back to my friend’s house around the corner, which I had just left, or I was going to jail.
  • I remember speeding through the narrow sliver of cleared debris, adrenaline pumping, as I sped out of the other exit to the neighborhood, making a break for my parents house a few miles down the road.
  • I remember pulling into my neighborhood and seeing a car coming my way. The only other car I had seen in the city other than the police. It was my parents heading out to the Interstate to join me at the roadblock they assumed I had been stopped at. Incredibly fortuitous timing.
  • And finally, I remember more police because one of our neighbors had called about the noise in our backyard. It was us, not looters, unloading the supplies from my car.

I have many more memories of what I saw once the sun came up. A holiday break spent with a chain saw and felled trees.

But I hope my point is made: I have not only seen the damage a hurricane can do but more importantly have felt what the after effects are like. The videos on television do not do them justice.

As anyone who lives near the coast will tell you, the quandary of most hurricanes is that if you wait long enough to see if they are going to hit you, it is too late too leave. This is not the case with Sandy. Sandy is so big that many high population areas are going to be hit regardless of the last minute path.

Of course, each individual has to do what they feel is best in their unique situation. But if my experience can help you at all, then please listen to the authorities in your area, and if you are being asked to evacuate, do so.

For the record, my parents, who rode out Hugo in the hallway have said that they would never do it again.

Our thoughts here at CTS go out to everyone who is facing down this storm. Be safe out there.

About 

By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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23 replies
  1. Alaiyo Kiasi
    Alaiyo Kiasi says:

    Hello Adam,

    I was just approving your post on Triberr and thought I would click over and read your article since I’m in Maryland waiting for Sandy to roll in. I’m from Mobile, Alabama and remember when I was at the University of Alabama as Hurricane Frederic hit my hometown in 1979. I, too, was worried about my family but things turned out fine for them. While I haven’t had your experience of seeing hurricane damage (I don’t remember Hurricane Camille in 1969–we must have evacuated).

    I think any information you offer someone in the path of a hurricane is extremely useful. Thanks for sharing your story.

    Alaiyo

    Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Hi Alaiyo,

      Thank you for stopping by and sharing. It’s definitely tough worrying about the loved ones who are in the path of these storms. At least, the communication networks and information flow are a lot better than 1979 and 1989!

      I hope you are spared any serious issues from Sandy, and you and yours are safe. Our thoughts are with you.

      Reply
  2. Kaarina Dillabough
    Kaarina Dillabough says:

    Excellent choice to share your story Adam. Even way up here in Canada we’re being told of the effects that the hurricane will have upon us, and it will be miniscule compared to what all those in the direct path will experience.

    I will share your tale in hopes that those who “wait long enough to see if they (hurricanes) are going to hit you, it is too late too leave. This is not the case with Sandy. Sandy is so big that many high population areas are going to be hit regardless of the last minute path.”

    Sorry that your family had to experience it first-hand: glad you made it out to tell the story. Cheers! Kaarina

    Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Thanks Kaarina! It sounds like, for most people, the time to leave has past. I hope everyone will listen to their local advice, as every area is different.

      As for my family, fortunately we only lost possessions and not people during Hugo — so all in all, we did okay. Others were not so fortunate.

      Stay warm up there!

      Reply
  3. Brian D. Meeks
    Brian D. Meeks says:

    If I were in the path of Sandy, I’d have left, after reading that post. I’m not brave and I hope that people don’t get themselves into a bind. I’m especially worried about NYC. What if they lose power for a week? That could really be rough

    Here in the mid-west, our thoughts and prayers are with everyone up and down the eastern seaboard.

    Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Big cities and natural disasters are a very tough combination. The good news is that NYC gov seems like its prepared; hopefully, what happens won’t deviate too much from what the gov is prepared for. I’m with you — thoughts go out to everyone in harm’s way.

      Reply
  4. Ralph
    Ralph says:

    Hey Adam, that’s quite the story.

    There are many who have experienced the effects of a storm like that and many, many more that have not. Simply knowing the sheer force a storm like that can wield I am in awe of someone who would consider staying in its direct path. Like anything with such devastating effect the best that any of us can do is offer support to those that have to rebuild from the aftermath.

    Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Hey Ralph, you know, it’s tough to make the decision to evacuate, especially in the typical hurricane scenario where you are not in the range of the storm surge and you are not sure if the hurricane is going to hit. If you have an active season here in Florida, you could be getting threatened multiple times a season, and you can’t run out of town at the least chance. As someone with a retail business, I also want to be around to protect the business in the aftermath. Most of the time, it’s a tough call. Sandy was different. It was so large and so definite in general path that some of those questions weren’t as unanswerable.

      In the end, as you said, the best we can do is support those in need in these times.

      Reply
  5. Tim Bonner
    Tim Bonner says:

    Hey Adam

    I can only imagine what Hurricane Hugo was like and think myself lucky that we don’t have that kind of weather in the UK.

    My thoughts go out to everyone who is in the path of Hurricane Sandy.

    Thank you for sharing your story Adam.

    Reply
  6. Josh
    Josh says:

    Hi Adam,

    I have been through the LA Riots (’92) and the Northridge quake (’94) and seen what happens when supply lines are completely disrupted and the shelves in the stores are stripped clean.

    It is not a pleasant experience and while the riots didn’t have the same devastation as that caused by Mother Nature the Northridge quake certainly did.

    If that sort of experience doesn’t wake you up and make you recognize the need to be prepared and to act appropriately for the situation I am not sure what will.

    When you are given warning and know you can get out that is usually the smart thing to do, but people like to pretend bad things never happen so…

    Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      You’re right Josh, I think a lot of people think bad things won’t happen or that help is only a phone call away. The problem is that the system, as modern and advanced as it is, is still subject to operational constraints. It can only handle a very limited number of situations at one time. Katrina should have been the wake up call for anyone who hasn’t had a personal experience with a storm. Help can be very slow in coming.

      Reply
  7. Carolyn
    Carolyn says:

    Hi Adam, Wow, your memories are very strong of those storms. I bet those memories will last a lifetime.

    In the midst of death and destruction there are also stories of heroism. It’s funny how the worst of times often brings out the best in people.

    Thanks for sharing these wonderful stories. Such an adventurous life!

    Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      No doubt Carolyn. The memories are still strong. It was definitely one of the life events that left an indelible impression and impact.

      I wrote about the immediate aftermath — martial law, darkness, destruction — to make a point, but you’re so right, immediately heroes emerged, and not just with extraordinary acts, but with small acts of community. Friends helping friends, neighbors helping neighbors, strangers helping strangers. We often do get to see the best of people in these dire situations.

      Reply
  8. Michelle Quillin
    Michelle Quillin says:

    Adam, what a scary story!

    Our daughter Christa was due to drive back here to RI from Kentucky, leaving Saturday morning, and we really didn’t know what was best. All I could think of was the number of people who’d be on the road evacuating, and the winds that were already picking up, the snow threatening West Virginia (part of her route), and what would happen if she had car trouble along the way. Thankfully, she stayed put. Now we’re planning her route home, trying to account for multiple factors we hadn’t anticipated.

    We’re grateful to have made it through Sandy just fine here in North Kingstown, RI, but neighbors all around us lost trees and power. Many in our little coastal state lost homes and businesses, but New Englanders are a hearty bunch, given to stoicism and survival in harsh conditions. It’s the devastating stories and images coming out of New Jersey that have me heartbroken. As Governor Christie said, NOTHING can prepare for that kind of devastation.

    Reply
    • Adam Toporek
      Adam Toporek says:

      Wow Michelle, sounds like you all made the right decision regarding Christa’s travels. It’s hard enough to evacuate ahead of an impending storm — deciding to drive towards it is another matter all together.

      I am glad you and your area were not heavily impacted by Sandy — and particularly that you and your family are safe! The images coming out of NJ and NYC are just terrible, and you’re right, you can only prepare for so many things and certain levels of damage. Our thoughts go out to everyone affected!

      Thanks for sharing your story!

      Reply

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