Hurricane Hugo May Hold Lessons for Gulf Coast

As Gulf Coast communities rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, some are hoping to emulate the experience of Charleston, S.C. Hurricane Hugo devastated the city in 1989, but in many ways, it ended up stronger afterward.

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As Gulf Coast communities rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, they might want to take a look at Charleston, South Carolina. That city was devastated by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and in many ways it ended up stronger afterward. NPR's Adam Hochberg traveled to Charleston to see what lessons the Gulf Coast might learn.

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

There are people around Charleston who look back on Hurricane Hugo with its 130 mph winds and call it the best thing that's ever happened to their city, and they're only half joking. Take a walk along the ocean with LaJuan Kennedy, a realtor in the community of Folly Beach, just outside Charleston. Hugo flattened dozens of homes here and led to a massive rebuilding effort that in Kennedy's view changed things for the better.

Ms. LAJUAN KENNEDY (Realtor, Folly Beach, South Carolina): The houses that were here most of them were '50s, early '60s, vintage, little small three-bedroom, one bath, 1,000 square feet and right now you see these are a good bit larger.

HOCHBERG: These are multi-million dollar homes here now.

Ms. KENNEDY: Yes.

HOCHBERG: The Hugo effect, what one of Kennedy's colleagues calls forced urban renewal, helped transform Folly Beach from a working class vacation destination to an upscale resort haven. Kennedy says even as debris still littered the streets, people here realized the hurricane was a rare opportunity to remake their community.

Ms. KENNEDY: As the money started coming in, the insurance money, the FEMA money, the SVA money, they were able to build these houses back, and what they built back is what you see. It kind of kicked our market, brought in a lot of money that we would not have had before for the people to build, you know, nicer, larger homes.

HOCHBERG: Throughout the Charleston area, Hugo coincided with the start of a building boom that has not yet receded. From the rubble of the hurricane emerged beachfront mansions, suburban subdivisions, and a restored downtown that's become a magnet for upscale tourists and trendy shops. College of Charleston Economist Frank Heffner says Hugo brought in almost $3 billion of insurance money and an immeasurable amount of national publicity.

Mr. FRANK HEFFNER (Economist, College of Charleston): I had just moved to South Carolina from the Midwest and all my colleagues from the Midwest commented that on how devastated, beautiful historic downtown Charleston was and it was exactly those terms, beautiful, historic, downtown Charleston. And I asked some of them what did you know about beautiful, historic, downtown Charleston before the hurricane? And the answer was really not much. And so there was certainly an advertising effect about that.

HOCHBERG: Heffner says even before the storm Charleston was showing signs of growth. A downtown revitalization project was underway and tourism was on the upswing. But local leaders faced a challenge trying to maintain that momentum in the wake of what was, then, America's costliest natural disaster. Joe Riley is Charleston's long-time mayor.

Mr. JOE RILEY (Mayor, Charleston, South Carolina): I was very concerned about our economy. So, we did everything we could to pitch Charleston, and the fact that we were going to be open for business soon, and the expressed positiveness about it.

HOCHBERG: Now, Mayor Riley is consulting with his counterparts on the Gulf Coast. And while Katrina's damage is much worse than Hugo's he says there still are lessons to be learned from Charleston's experience. Riley discovered that rebuilding a city is a lot like leading an army into war. He says you need clear goals, strict timelines, and a strong effort to maintain morale.

Mr. RILEY: As terrible as things appear right after a devastating hurricane, you never want the disaster to win. You don't want to let Hurricane Hugo take something away from you. So, our citizens didn't want they and they would want to look back and say, the hurricane didn't win, we won. You know, we built back. It's okay. It's better.

HOCHBERG: Indeed, if there's one regret some Charlestonians have about the recovery process, it's that it's worked too well. As insurance money poured into town and people rebuilt bigger and better, real estate values soared. Home prices rose ten-fold, property taxes went up with them and preservationist Jonathan Poston, at the Historic Charleston Foundation, says the area changed forever.

Mr. JONATHAN POSTON (Preservationist, Charleston Historic Foundation): Some of the neighborhoods that were not rehabilitated before the hurricane were tremendously renovated afterward and those have seen such incredible value added to properties that the traditional residents have been pushed out.

Mr. ANDY WARD (Resident): This used to be actually like a kitchen area here.

HOCHBERG: Andy Ward is among those feeling pushed out. He lives near Charleston on Sullivan's Island in this hundred-year-old house he shares with his parents. Ward, a furniture salesman, said Sullivan's was a blue-collar town before the hurricane. But now working class families are being replaced by wealthy ones.

Mr. WARD: Since Hugo, a lot of residents basically took the insurance money and sold their property as is and bailed out because the way property values have gone up over here, that's like a house payment trying to pay your taxes.

HOCHBERG: Ward is thinking of selling his home and moving away. His sister, an artist who lives next door, already has hers on the market. Lynn Ward says her $12,000 property tax bill is part of the reason she's selling. But she says she's also grown uncomfortable in the town where she grew up.

Ms. LYNN WARD (Resident): I really don't have anything in common with anybody that lives here anymore. You know, we have no friends on this whole street any longer because it's all turned over to, you know, people that have totally different lives than we do.

HOCHBERG: Jonathan Poston, the preservationist, says that loss of community, so common since Hugo, is an even greater risk in places like New Orleans, where the damage was more severe. He says Charleston generally did a good job restoring its buildings and its economy, but he says Gulf Coast cities should work equally hard to do something Charleston couldn't: preserve the character of neighborhoods.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

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