The pictures of the devastation fail most at conveying the swooning stink. That’s what I remember about being at ground zero of one of the worst hurricanes to ever hit mainland America.
It was September 21, 1989, that the eye of Hurricane Hugo passed over Charleston, S.C. I was there five days later.
It was during that slight sliver of my career when I was a truly bona fide journalist. I was writing general assignment stories for the Tribune-Review in Greensburg, Pa. Perfectly legit.
I know, what the hell was I thinking?
Hugo killed 27 in South Carolina, left more than 100,000 homeless and at $10 billion in damage became the costliest hurricane in American history. It still ranks 11th.
It was a national tragedy and dominated the headlines the way Sandy is doing today. People everywhere were heartbroken. And people wanted to help.
A hearty group of local firefighters led by Chief Eddie Hutchinson, a profane and rollicking force of nature himself, flew into the devastation armed with chainsaws and strong spines. They were there to remove debris, clear streets and reassure residents that America cared.
I was there to write about their activities and see if there was even a single restaurant in the storm zone worthy of an expense account splurge.
Sadly, I failed in part two of my mission.
But I did a bang-up job in my primary objective.
And that’s what I remember about being on Sullivan’s Island, a barrier island in Charleston Harbor that back then resembled Jersey’s worst devastation.
It was on Sullivan’s Island where I learned a great literary trick that I still to this day use to great effect.
I would say something was indescribable and then show off by describing it in precise detail. What I wrote then could just as easily apply to Jersey City.
“The magnitude of the residential destruction defies description. There are just miles and miles of piles and piles.”
Like a lyric, the line has a playful Seussian quality to it.
I thought of Sullivan’s Island when I heard an over-excited reporter say “Sandy may have rendered parts of New Jersey’s shore uninhabitable.”
Right. Like people are going to stop wanting to wake up to look out on the ocean.
I hear experts say Hurricane Sandy is going to cost $50 billion dollars and I shake my head. My experience gives me a contrary view.
I consider Sandy a meteorological stimulus package.
I confirmed this with a successful businessman friend. He sells things like copiers to places like hospitals and universities.
“It’s like when I hear some big business say they made $100 million in 2010 and then made $80 million in 2011,” he said. “They say they lost $20 million. Well, no, they didn’t. They made less, but they made a lot.”
If someone needed a copier before Sandy hit, they’re still going to need a copier today. In fact, they might now need two.
Most of the people who lost everything are insured to the teeth -- and I’m not talking dental plans. They will be justly compensated, it is hoped, for their property losses. Those who are under-insured, by God, let’s help them.
But I don’t think the men and women who are right now pumping the water out of New York’s subways are feeling insecure about their futures.
I think they’re feeling needed.They are working round-the-clock and are viewing the pre-Christmas overtime as a windfall.
Same goes for the people who run utility cable or provide building materials.
I’m reminded of a railroad executive who once told me why the railroads prefer to ship freight instead of people: “Freight doesn’t complain if you mistreat freight and if you damage freight you’re only going to get more freight.”
We’re, thank God, mostly talking about stuff.
My most touching recollection of my time on Sullivan’s Island was helping a family dig through the one-story devastation of what used to be their three-story home to find an heirloom box of their late grandmother’s keepsakes. They were frantic.
They found it.
I remember them saying they were going to salvage sections of the hard wood floor and use it as a dining room table top for the home they were already planning to rebuild.
We are a resilient bunch of bastards.
Today Sullivan’s Island is once again a magnificent playground. The histories I saw make no mention that it was nearly wiped off the map 22 years ago.
I like to think New Jersey will recover just as magnificently. The houses will be rebuilt, lives restored, futures refreshed. Wiped out wardrobe shops will be replaced with shiny new ones with lavish features that today defy description.
There will be just rows and rows of clothes and clothes.
Man, I still got it.
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