TRULY EXCELLENT WRITING VIRGINIA GUNN DIEHL WRITES ABOUT HURRICANE BILL

Hurricane Hugo and the Terrible Teens

Hurricane Bill, the first major hurricane of the season is no longer a threat. Hurricane Bill who was named after my husband and every other man named Bill was at one time a powerful hurricane with winds clocked at 135 m.p.h. He stayed offshore. Former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary left Bermuda a day early, and President Obama and his family decided to wait until Sunday to go on vacation at Martha's Vineyard.

My husband would have liked the fact that his namesake hurricane did no damage, but it did effect the plans of two presidents.

When I was in television, Marilyn was my make-up artist. She and her husband Michael have been friends for thirty years. They were friends with Bill before I met them, so we go back a long time. I asked her to send me a list of some of the people she had done make-up for. I only got page one of five, so I can't list them all, but some of them were Paul Newman, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Lucille Ball, and Barbara Walters.

When I quit T.V. and moved to the island with Bill, they would come and visit us often. On one visit, we told the guys we were going to walk down the beach and find a home for them so that they could move to the island. Of course, we were just kidding, but that's what happened. There was a new, beautiful house down the beach. We wandered around and came back to the house announcing that we had found the perfect home for them. Lo and behold, they moved to that house on the island. Michael would commute back and forth to Atlanta, and Marilyn and I had wonderful days together. We would walk the beach, collect shells, talk, drink coffee, take pictures, and enjoy the special life that we were living.

Flash forward from Hurricane David in 1979 to 1989 when Hurricane Hugo raised his ugly head. Bill and I had a hurricane tracking map that we would track hurricanes with. We would stick pins in the chart until the hurricane came onshore. I imagine a lot of people that live on islands do this. Hurricane Hugo was born on September 9th, and didn't come onshore in the United States until September 22nd. That's a long time to track a storm. When he got closer to the states, life got a little crazy. Day after day, he was getting closer to our island. People started boarding up their houses. Michael has always been a great planner, so he made hotel reservations, they boarded their house and prepared to evacuate. Bill and I approached doom and destruction the way we always did. We smoked lots of cigarettes and drank lots of coffee, as we watched the weather channel every waking moment of every day. Hugo was becoming a very strong and scary hurricane.

Marilyn and Michael had two children, nine cats, and nine birds. They rented a rental truck and got ready to go if need be. I had seventy birds in a dozen cages in our back yard.

I figured if I couldn't evacuate the birds, I needed to stay put. Plus, the island has been very lucky when it comes to hurricanes. They always pass us by. The last one to hit was in the sixties. President Johnson came and surveyed the damage and had the Corps of Engineers place large rocks in front of the homes. They are still there, and are called the Johnson Rocks.

I was sitting around thinking, "Man, Marilyn and Michael sure are working up a sweat over this." and I had another cigarette and another cup of coffee.

Then one evening Dan Rather comes on the news and announces to the world that Hurricane Hugo was going to make landfall in Brunswick, Georgia. Brunswick is the town across from the island on the mainland. I said, "I beg your pardon, Dan, are you nuts? We don't get hurricanes here." I started to get very nervous, as I knew Dan Rather had never mentioned Brunswick, Georgia in his life, up until this point. Then things got really crazy. Michael had made reservations, but they were on the wrong day. Then he changed them to another hotel that turned out to be in the path of Hurricane Hugo. Bill and I finally started realizing that we were in deep trouble. I called our handy man and asked him to come board up the house. He spent all day boarding the house and he gets to the last window and I stop him. I told him I had to have one window that wasn't boarded so that I could see the birds in my back yard. Like that was going to help them in some way. He was not happy. He explained to me that if one window is not covered, it defeats the whole purpose of boarding the house in the first place. I said I didn't care, I had to see if my birds were okay.

The whole island must have seen that newscast, as it emptied out quickly. Marilyn and Michael got ready to leave. A T.V. crew showed up at their house, and wanted to film from their house as it sat just about as close to the ocean as you could get. She opened the door, they asked and she broke into tears. And then after we hugged and kissed for what may have been the last time, they left. Then I think they were stuck in traffic forever. Bill and I sat in our boarded up house, except for that one window and waited to die. We were probably the only fools left in a house on the beach, as all the T.V. crews started showing up to do interviews. I didn't have on a stitch of make-up and didn't care. Besides the seventy birds in the backyard, we had ten dogs, and one cat. They were getting nervous, probably because they knew better than us what was about to happen, and they felt we weren't doing enough to make sure that they didn't have to swim for their lives.

Later that night, it turned. CNN called for an interview. I told them nothing much was going on, which seemed to break their hearts. No wind? No nothing? By that time, it really wasn't windy, but I blew a few times into the receiver so that they wouldn't be too disappointed. Bill went to bed and I stayed up all night. The next morning I took Magoo, our white german shepherd to the beach. The first thing I did was to get down on my knees and kiss the sand. A small plane flew over and tipped his wings at us, which made me burst into tears. Tears that we were okay, and tears that someone else wasn't. And indeed, they weren't. At midnight on September 22, with 140 m.p.h. winds, Hugo slammed into South Carolina. Eighty percent of the homes on Folly Beach were destroyed. Hundreds of beachfront homes were gutted or flattened. The Atlantic House, an over the water restaurant was completely swept away, only the pilings of the 13,000 square foot restaurant were found the next morning. If Dan Rather had been right, that would have been us. The beautiful moss draped oaks were desimated and eighty percent of the historic buildings in Charleston were damaged.

250,000 people fled low lying areas of Georgia, South Carolina and southern North Carolina. Hugo is the most intense hurricane to ever strike the United States coast north of Florida. He was twice the size of Andrew ( 1992) but less intense. He was the most expensive tropical cyclone to ever strike America up to that time ( 1989 ). Ten billion dollars in damages. Almost two hundred miles inland, Hugo still had 100 m.p.h. gusts. Hurricane Hugo produced the highest tide surge ever recorded along the U.S. Atlantic coast. According to the U.S. Corps of Engineers, tides reached 19.8 feet above mean sea level.

A week after the storm, 56,000 people were homeless in the Carolinas. Seventy six people died. The U.S death toll was thirty five. If Rather had been right, there would have been no St. Simons Island left. There probably wouldn't have been a Brunswick, Georgia left, either.

About a week after things calmed down, I felt an overwhelming urge to help those that had taken the hit from "our" hurricane. I gathered up a full household of items to take to Charleston. Furniture, pots and pans, bedding, everything to start over. My handyman and I took off to Charleston. He drove the rental truck and I drove my car. A church located a family that had lost everything and we set off. The destruction up there was amazing and heartbreaking. We delivered our load and started back. When we got home, I realized that I had accidently packed up a box that had been intended for my mother's birthday. There was three hundred dollars worth of girlie-girl stuff. Most of it was for relaxing and spoiling ones self. There were bubble baths, at least a dozen. Pumice stone, little candles, heart shaped soap, manicure set, incense, just over the top stuff. I have often wondered what those people thought when they got to that box. They didn't even have a bathroom, much less a tub. Little, heart shaped soaps were probably not what they needed at the time.

My mother was gracious. She believed me and forgave me.

Marilyn and Michael found their way home and we all got back to "island time."

Marilyn and I got African grey parrots at the same time. Her bird was named Leon and mine was named Charleston, in honor of the people that had been thru so much. Her bird now lives on a mountain in Kingman, Arizona. Mine is still with me, here in Georgia. They are brothers, as they both came from the same clutch. Hers speaks Spanish that he has picked up from workers. Mine was not the brightest bulb in the package. He says, "Puppies!" and he use to know all the dogs names. But when a dog would die eventually, he would stop calling that dog's name. The same thing happened when Bill died. He stopped calling his name. He also stopped calling my name. Charleston will be twenty next month. We have been through a lot together. He has a little, bald spot on the top of his head because he likes to take his hanging bell and wear it on his head. The other day, one of his bells came undone and fell to the bottom of his cage. I didn't think much of it until I noticed that the whole bottom of his cage was wet. I thought there was a crack in his water bowl until I saw what he was doing. He would take the bell in his foot/hand, turn it upside down and use it as a cup. Obviously, he would rather drink from a cup. Then he would throw the rest of it overboard. Sometimes he wouldn't drink at all. He would just scoop up water and throw it it out. He would flood the whole bottom of his cage. I took it away from him, as this was getting very messy, but then I felt badly because it seemed to bring him much joy to do this. So, I decided to let him be and gave him his bell back.

The other night, he starts to scream really loudly. Charleston has never been a screamer. The only time he screams is if he has a toe caught on something, and when he does this, the dogs come running because they know he is in distress. They will bark madly until I fix whatever is wrong with their bird. Well, for whatever reason, maybe because he is a teenager, he is now doing this because he knows he can get instant attention not only from his dogs, but me too. He also started calling, Ginny, Ginny, Ginny in Bill's voice. This is a little unnerving as he hasn't done this since Bill died. Between his imitation of the great floods of Hurricane Hugo, his death screams and pretending to be my dead husband, my nerves are getting pretty frayed. I scream at him to shut up, walk into the other room and he says in the sweetest voice, "You Okay?" To which I reply, "Yes, Charleston, I'm fine but I have one nerve left, and you are getting on it." To which he replies, "You, Okay?"

Maybe when he turns twenty next month, he will reach a certain maturity and stop flooding his house, screaming because he can, and stop pretending to be Bill. On the other hand, maybe Bill is here somewhere. Now that would be sweet!

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