Six Hours of Terror; Years of Recovery
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) _ It took Hurricane Hugo six hours to roar across South Carolina, lashing the state with wind, rain and flood. Officials ending a week of cleanup say those few hours will be felt for years.
The storm smashed the state’s economy, throwing thousands out of work. It devastated timberlands, farmlands and coastal areas, damaging everything from tourist havens to shrimp beds. The genteel face of Charleston has been scarred and muddied.
″It’s not going to be a quick process, it is going to be hard for all of us,″ said Joseph P. Riley Jr., the mayor of Charleston, where more than 2,500 historically significant buildings were damaged. The repairs to those building will take five years.
The immediate effects are obvious. Eleven days after South Carolina bore the brunt of the storm, thousands of people remain without electricity, and an estimated 50,000 are homeless.
Cleanup efforts are costing the state a half-million dollars daily. State Comptroller General Earle Morris has estimated Hugo could put the state budget $300 million in the red in the next fiscal year, partly due to losses in revenue from fallen payroll and property taxes.
Hugo’s 135 mph winds and 17-foot tidal surge also altered the state’s employment picture. An estimated 270,000 people were thrown out of work for at least the short term, raising the state’s normally low unemployment rate of 4.5 percent to more than 16 percent.
″It’s across the board,″ said Jack Philips, a program supervisor with the state Employment Security Commission. ″We have everything from manufacturing plants to hardware stores affected. The weather doesn’t discriminate.″
Philips said it was hoped many shops and businesses would reopen soon, but the state’s important lumber and fishing industries may take three years to recover.
Dozens of shrimp boats were beached and damaged by the storm, which struck during one of the best harvests in recent years. State officials say shrimp beds appear to have escaped major damage, but producers were hit hard.
″The biggest thing is people who buy the shrimp - the packing houses - they’re all wiped out,″ said Jimmy Scott, a McClellanville shrimper for 21 years.
Of greater concern is the damage to forests, which provide the raw materials for a $4.3 billion wood products industry that employs 30,000 people.
It is estimated 36 percent of the 12.2 million acres of state forest was damaged, felling trees worth more than $1 billion.
Put in perspective, about 2.2 billion board feet of timber are harvested annually. Hugo’s destruction downed 6.7 billion board feet.
″We hope to salvage what we can, but there’s three years of harvest on the ground,″ said Steve Scott, a state forester. ″We see a major reforestation problem. After all, how do you get that many acres back in production?″
The tourist industry, a $4 billion business that employs 98,000 people, is expected to bounce back quickly despite $2 billion in damage. But Robert Liming, state director of tourism, said damage to such resorts as Myrtle Beach and Garden City would drop growth from an anticipated 8 percent to less than 3 percent this year.
Liming said key to bringing tourists back is a quick rebuilding program to dispel notions that the coast remains in tatters.
″Some people are assuming that Myrtle Beach is gone and that’s a wrong assumption,″ he said. ″A remarkable amount of property has already gotten back on line, but some heavy rental areas are going to be a long time coming back.″
The storm laid waste to as much as $100 million worth of cotton, soybean, corn and tobacco in the major agriculture areas in the Savannah Valley and the northeast part of the state.
While the damage will be gone with next year’s row crops, Dan Smith, a Clemson agricultural economist, said the effects will take its toll on those who raise poultry, hogs and dairy cattle.
″Those losses will be much greater,″ he said. ″We’re talking about a longer term recovery period that will see some farmers sell out.″
Perhaps most worrisome is Hugo’s impact on the state’s small businesses: the restaurants, shops and small manufacturers without the resources to survive weeks and months of down time.
″The number of businesses coming into the disaster assistance centers is far greater than we expected,″ said John Patrick, district director of the U.S. Small Business Administration. ″We will probably be seeing effects of this for the next 10 years.″
Nelson Bean, president of Evans American Corp., a Houston-based company specializing in catastrophe management, said the longer it takes businesses to get on their feet, the greater the risk they face of closing.
″Probably 40 percent of businesses won’t reopen,″ he said. ″That’s pretty significant when you consider that these are largely mom and pop operations that have been in business for years and years.″