A year later, Hugo's physical emotional scars still hurt

September 21, 1990|By Los Angeles Times

AWENDAW, S.C. -- Whenever thunder rumbles and wind blows, Leroy Cummings gets icy shivers. His wife, Bertha, hides. "I can't take it," she says.

The sounds bring back the furious day Hurricane Hugo dismantled their home and lives, along with thousands of others. A year has passed since the storm ravaged coastal South Carolina, but for many residents the fear, pain and apprehension are a lingering, everyday legacy.

The Cummingses -- he is 71, and she is 70 -- now live in a house trailer, with four foster children. Most furnishings were donated. While their physical losses were devastating, the emotional damage seems appallingly larger. Dabbing away tears, Leroy Cummings said he asked himself for days: "By the 21st of the month [the anniversary of Hugo] will it happen again?"

There are other legacies of that fateful day. South Carolina lost $1.4 billion worth of timber, much of which still lies on the ground, rotting and raising fears of forest fires for years to come. Lawsuits involving insurance claims and contractors will clog the court system.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where the storm hit on Sept. 17 and 18, officials say they are rebuilding apace, laying underground telephone wiring and putting up hurricane-proof structures to replace the inferior ones that were destroyed.

Similarly, in Charleston, "the most extraordinary building boom in the city's history" is under way, said Mayor Joseph Riley, noting especially the massive refurbishing of the city's elegant old homes.

For many, however, particularly the elderly, the poor, and those in dusty hamlets outside Charleston, there is no silver lining, only the agonizing task of getting from one day to the next.

As residents pause to remember today's anniversary of the storm and ponder the possibility of another hurricane sweeping in from the Atlantic, coping becomes more difficult for some, say officials of the state Department of Mental Health.

Hurricane victims "are going to have an unusually long recovery period" said Nancy Carter, state clinical coordinator for emergency preparedness at the department, which operates a counseling program called Hugo Outreach Support Team.

Some victims say the year since Hugo's 140-mph winds swept into the state, killing 29 people and causing an estimated $6 billion in damage, has already been an eternity.

In Mount Pleasant, James Swinton, 72, who limps heavily and speaks in the soft, lyrical accent of coastal South Carolinians, said: "I don't feel safe," expressing a feeling he has had ever since he returned the day after the storm to find his home wrecked. "Things could happen again."

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