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Hurricane Hugo, 25 Years Later

Landscape, Preservation, Staff
By George McDaniel

When Hurricane Hugo struck, I’d accepted the job as site director, but was not due to start until November, so I was still in Atlanta where I worked with the Atlanta History Center. I drove from Atlanta to Summerville, and will never forget that Monday morning after Hurricane Hugo. I drove from Summerville down Ashley River Road, passing downed trees on either side. It was impossible to reach anyone by phone, so I had no idea if I was going to be the director of a historic site or an archaeological site. George Neil, our assistant director at the time, met me at the gate, and together we walked down the allee towards the house, climbing over and under broken or uprooted trees. As we were both Vietnam veterans, George turned to me and asked, “Remind you of III Corps after an artillery barrage?” And it did. We were pleased to see the house remarkably intact, but were also overwhelmed by the amount of damage done to the landscape.

Drayton Hall already had the reputation of being a survivor, still standing after the Revolutionary War, Civil War, the earthquake of 1886, and now Hugo. Chris and Booie Chappell, caretakers of the property, had weathered the storm inside the main house. “We decided since the house had survived all those years, we’d be better off in the basement of the big house,” said Booie. “We took water, food, and provisions. We were as prepared as we could have been. When the storm got really bad, we went to the Great Hall on the first floor and slept. You could hear the wind in the fireboxes.”

Clean-up took six months or more, and we were closed to visitors for a while.  Because I was new, I relied upon assistant director George Neil for his logistical skills and knowledge and on building and grounds supervisor John Kidder, and in fact, on all the staff.  There was no flooding, so the damage was due to strong winds. Downed trees littered the landscape and the ponds. We lost about 70% of the trees on the high ground, mostly pines. With a small staff, we relied on volunteers to walk the grounds in search of artifacts, marking their location with a pin flag in order to protect archaeological sites. Except for a short period immediately afterwards, heavy machinery was not used to remove trees on the high ground. In the African American cemetery, downed trees were cut up and removed by wheelbarrows.  On the riverside, the late 19th century barn was knocked down by high winds. It was in the process of being renovated to be an educational facility, but it was a total loss. As for the main house, most of the damage was done to the window glass. Three sashes were damaged so badly they needed to be rebuilt, while 36 panes of glass were replaced and 11 were re-glazed after the wind rattled the glazing away.

Hurricane Hugo changed the way we think about disaster preparedness at Drayton Hall. We now have well-tested plans for how to take care of the house, landscape, and facilities during a disaster and how to maintain effective communications.  We regularly document and photograph the current condition of the house and landscape.  Our staff is well trained in how to prepare for and respond to a natural disaster. It is our goal that the house continues to stand for many centuries to come.