Role Reversal: South Carolina Town Pitches In to Help Ocean CountyMcClellanville Remembers 1989 Hurricane Hugo Relief Convoy
While many states have joined the relief effort to help victims of Hurricane Sandy in Ocean County, the tiny coastal town of McClellanville, South Carolina is raising money to help the region recover. It serves as a gesture of thanks to Ocean County residents who aided them in the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Hugo in September 1989.
Bill Neyenhouse was a Barnegat Township committeeman when he was among a dozen people from town who traveled on the relief expedition. He said there were more than 30 trucks and approximately 100 personnel as part of a convoy that arrived eight days after Hugo made landfall in Charleston Harbor, S.C., in the early morning hours of Sept. 22. It was a Category 5 storm with sustained winds up to 160 miles per hour.
“Our job wasn’t to do any rebuilding; we had a massive cleanup on our hands,” said Neyenhouse, who at the time was an environmental specialist for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Neyenhouse said he had a good indicator how much damage they were facing when he noticed hundreds of trees knocked down along the interstate.
“The highway we were on was about seven miles off the coast,” he recalled. “We figured if it was this bad inland, what was it going to be like along the coast?”
A committeeman from 1988 to 1993 and mayor during 1990-91, Neyenhouse said that personnel consisted mainly of public works employees, volunteer fire company members and other first responders. He said most of them stayed for five days, although some had to go back home sooner.
“One of the first things we did was to spread lime out over the flooded areas to sanitize them,” he said. “You don’t want rotting seaweed and other things lying around out there. That could be a health hazard.”
Dale Brocklebank, who was a member of the Stafford Township Volunteer Fire Company, said the workers also had to clear out many miles of roads.
“There were trees and debris all over the place,” said Brocklebank, who is a Stafford Township public works employee. “The towns down there didn’t have the manpower to do a lot of this work.”
McClellanville is a 175-year-old fishing town located about two miles inland on U.S. Route 17 at Jeremy Creek, a coastal estuary not unlike Tuckerton Creek in Ocean County. Their distance from the ocean left most residents confident they could safely ignore the 3 p.m. evacuation deadline issued before Hugo was due to make landfall 10 hours later in the middle of the night. Curiously, power went out in McClellanville just as the evacuation deadline passed.
Neyenhouse recalled hearing townspeople later tell him that as Hugo bore down, many people evacuated to Lincoln High School, believing they were in a safe place. But they were, in fact, directly in harm’s way.
“They told us that there was five feet of water in the building and that cars in the parking lot were swept away,” he said. “There were families standing on chairs holding their young children.”
Ed Richard, who was a Barnegat public works employee and volunteer firefighter at the time, said the Barnegat, Stafford and Pinewood Estates volunteer fire companies each donated a used fire truck to McClellanville, delivering them when the Hurricane Hugo Relief convoy from Ocean County, N.J. arrived on Sept. 30, 1989.
“They had all their vehicles in the firehouse and the firehouse took in about six feet of water, ruining their engines,” Richard recalled.
Richard said that in talking to numerous residents, many of them did not evacuate because they “didn’t believe that much would happen.”
“They had been warned before, but nothing much happened so they decided to stay put,” he said. “Obviously, they turned out to be very wrong.”
“When you are told to evacuate, you have to go,” said Brocklebank. “After Hurricane Sandy hit us, it reminded me very much of Hugo, especially when I saw so many boats wash up far away from where they were docked. A lot of houses have been lost in Beach Haven West. I know that Sandy, as a Category 1 hurricane, may not have been as severe as Hugo. But now it is our turn to be at ground zero since people here are experiencing a little of what people went through in South Carolina.”
Since Sandy hit, Neyenhouse and his wife, Beverly, have been helping people as volunteers through Barnegat United Methodist Church.
“We’ve been doing whatever we can,” he said. “It could be helping carry away damaged furniture or cutting sheetrock. We’ve had our church open in the evening, serving hot chocolate and helping people relax a little.”
Mary Duke, McClellanville town administrator, recalled that Hugo was a Category 3 storm when it was still out to sea, but then strengthened as it approached land.
“After it made landfall, it started to weaken the more it moved inland and by the time it had reached western North Carolina, it was a tropical storm,” she said. “But the damage here had already been done.”
She said McClellanville, located 35 miles north of Charleston, and other neighboring coastal villages took the brunt of the storm, which brought in tidal surges of between 17 and 20 feet. That level nearly doubled the surge brought on by Hurricane Sandy.
“There were winds outside of more than 110 miles per hour,” she said. “It was the most horrifying experience I ever had. It is also amazing that we did not have any fatalities. It took several years before everything could get back to speed. Those fishing villages and their boats got wiped out.”
Duke said she had been reading about Hurricane Sandy online, and she thought some people in this area “were making the same mistake” about decisions to stay at home to ride out the storm.
“I guess when it comes to hurricanes, most people learn the hard way,” she said.
However, when she and other McClellanville officials learned of Ocean County’s plight, it was quickly decided they would help.
“We’re asking for monetary donations,” said Duke. “So far, we’ve raised about $5,000. I know it is not a lot of money, but we had to do something to help them, when you think of what all they did to help us.”
Duke said her community is not really a big tourist attraction like Long Beach Island. It is located near protected areas that allow little room for building.
“People have to go out of town to find hotels,” she said.
Neyenhouse said he saw similarities to McClellanville.
“It was what Barnegat was like when we had a lot of baymen, before it got built up,” he said. “It also looked a little like the fishing boat docks you have in Barnegat Light.”
Neyenhouse said he and Beverly returned to McClellanville in late October 1989 and attended a service at the local United Methodist Church. He said a member gave him a waterlogged copy of the church’s cookbook. He brought it back to Barnegat United Methodist Church, and held a fundraiser for the South Carolina church, featuring recipes from the book. Some of the recipes unfamiliar to this area included hush puppies (Southern deep-fried dough) and Hoppin’ John, a dish of peas and rice.
“We had fried chicken, a coleslaw recipe, cranberry salad and some other dinners,” said Neyenhouse. “We raised about $2,000 for the church.”
Neyenhouse and his wife returned again to McClellanville eight years ago.
“I didn’t remember many of the people, but when I told them I was from Barnegat, their faces lit up, and they continued to thank us,” he said. “And we certainly appreciate the fact that they want to do something to help us, because we’re experiencing a little what they went through.”