Jesse Ferrell

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20th Anniversary: My Hurricane Hugo Photos

September 23, 2009; 9:46 AM ET

20 years ago yesterday morning, I awoke in the North Carolina foothills (250 miles inland!) to blinking light bulbs and tremendous wind and rain. The power went out in mom's house in Boomer, North Carolina, later that morning, and didn't come back on for ten days (phone was out for 2 weeks). Trees bent over farther than I had ever seen and eventually started snapping. After seeing about a dozen trees go down behind the house, we decided it was time to hide in the basement. Hurricane Hugo had arrived.

Little known to us at the time, damage had already happened at our beach house in Long Beach on Oak Island, NC. As this article points out, Hurricane Hugo "dissipated" the dunes on beaches as far away as southern North Carolina (120 miles away!) Here's a photo of our house at Long Beach (Oak Island, NC) after Hugo:

As you can see, the dunes are gone, and so is our garage. My father, who took the picture, said the beach road was under sand with washers and dryers sticking out every so often (and this was probably a week after the storm!) I think this was the most damage our house had ever sustained (it had been there since 1956). The key was that Hugo was strong, moving fast, and hit to the south of our location (because hurricanes rotate counterclockwise, the wind is from the sea to the right/north of an East Coast hit).


Because of Hugo's forward speed (a quick 35 miles per hour) and tenacity (he had been a Category 5 hurricane), he caused damage far away from landfall - he was still technically a hurricane when he sent 85-mph wind gusts through Charlotte, NC, 180 miles in, and was finally downgraded to a Tropical Storm at 250 miles in, just west of my house in the North Carolina mountains (I estimate winds were 60-80 mph)! He continued at tropical storm strength until reaching Lake Erie, more than 700 miles inland (and up the Appalachian mountains nonetheless)! WBTV's Eric Thomas says in their retrospective video that 300,000 trees were downed by the storm in the Carolinas. Thousands of those were on our 50 acres in Wilkes County, NC. WBTV says that Duke Power estimated that 98% of their customers in the Charlotte area were without power - some wouldn't get it back for 3 weeks.

As we cringed in the basement under the main beam of the house, we heard crashes all around us and the ground shook as trees fell. I was only 15 years old, and the wonder of storms and love of weather had turned into fear for our safety. After the winds died down, we didn't know if we would emerge to a roof or not.


Fortunately, since the storm was to our west, the winds circulating around the storm had come from the southeast, where we didn't have many trees, so most of the trees fell away from the house. But there was a problem. A 70-foot Hickory tree was bent over our house. Should it fall, it would likely cut the house in two, via our bedrooms on the second floor.


The eventual solution was that Roy, a farmer down the road, came with a tractor and he and my parents rigged a pulley system to bend the tree back the other way, then carefully cut it down, making it fall in the other direction. It was a dangerous, risky plan, but it worked.

And it wasn't just that a few trees came down. The entire forest around our house was gone. Take this photo, for example. Had I taken this photo before Hugo hit, all you would have seen was a dense forest, no sky at all. After Hugo, all that was left was one tree with a couple of limbs and one trunk! We had loggers come in to remove the trees, but they were still hauling out truckloads at Christmas!

We eventually ventured into the local town of Wilkesboro (we had to wait for some trees to be cut out of the way, and my Grandpa had to drive us, because our car was under a tree and there were dozens of trees blocking our driveway and the road). Power was out there too, everything was closed, and trees were down everywhere. Here's a photo of a large tree suspended on power lines over Highway 18 in Moravian Falls.


This storm really changed my life. For ten years I had grown, lived and played in our woods, then suddenly the landscape had changed. In remembrance of this great storm, I've remastered and re-scanned 70 photo prints that I took of the damage, including those shown above. You can view all of them below. I believe Frank Strait was living in North Carolina at the time as well, and he will be doing a video later today sharing his experience with the storm.


Comments (4):


Jesse, I was in Sumter SC, right in Hugos path just on the other side of I95. Our experience was much like yours, we went a week without running water, 9 days without power, and a month without phone service. As you said, Hugo changed the landscape forever. what was really interesting was the trees that were down seemed to be in such random patterns, you could not guess which way the wind was blowing by looking at the downed trees. There was speculation about embedded tornados and vortex winds, but I don't know if it could be that most trees were pines which did not blow over, but snapped, then the top lands did not just fall, but got blown away.


Posted by Trevar | September 24, 2009 4:32 PM


Hugo for you in Western NC. Fran was the exact same experience for me in Raleigh NC. My sister was going to Lenior Rhyne in Hickory when Hugo hit. She said oak and hickory trees as big in circumference as dinner tables came down from Hugo's winds. What a storm.I remember being out of school in Raleigh for Hugo and trying to use an umbrella to fly away. Great Pics

FROM JESSE: You're right Jason, Fran was also huge in Raleigh and I was there for it too! Another good example of a storm that caused more damage than you'd think that far inland.

Posted by Jason | September 23, 2009 9:44 PM

The Delmarva Johnster Monster:

In March, 1991, about 18 months after Hugo, I drove to Augusta to attend a wedding, and I remember seeing the damage to the forests along I-20 between Florence and Columbia. If I remember correctly, the path of destruction was about 20 miles wide. It was also interesting to see that most of the damage occurred on the right side of the storm as almost all of the trees had fallen in a northwesterly direction.

Posted by The Delmarva Johnster Monster | September 23, 2009 6:02 PM


Hi Jesse,

I was sent by American Airlines out of Greensboro,NC to help start an AA station in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands.This was right after Hugo had gone thru.20 years is a long time to remember details,but I had quite an experience.

I remember guard troops with parts of island that looked like bombs had gone off.My hotel room had cracks in ceiling with small green lizards all around.Sleeping was very difficult as you didnt know when one would crawl on you at night. People are buried on top of ground in the islands & I remember the caskets had all washed up in piles.Quite spooky at night.

Back then,you didnt have digital cameras & I didnt have time to take damage photos.

I never have seen EF4 or EF5 tornado damage in plains but on tv-what I did see of damage in St.Croix will always remind me of how powerful Mother Nature can be.



Posted by Kim | September 23, 2009 3:13 PM

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Jesse Ferrell
Jesse Ferrell's WeatherMatrix blog covers extreme weather worldwide with a concentration on weather photos and Social Media.