Twenty years ago, an old friend in Richfield, North Carolina was trying to get his dairy herd milked while Hurricane Hugo roared around him.
I’ve known Butch Brooks since we were in the first grade together. He’s now running his family’s dairy farm near Richfield, which is 186 miles inland from Charleston, South Carolina. Hugo made landfall at Charleston around midnight on September 21, 1989 with peak winds exceeding 135 mph and a storm surge of about 20 feet.
The people in Richfield and other towns in the rolling hills of North Carolina’s southwestern Piedmont don’t usually concern themselves with hurricane warnings. But Hugo was a very unusual hurricane in many ways. The storm was what is sometimes called a “bulldozer” hurricane – a storm that retains much of its power after making landfall and causes unusually severe damage as it moves inland.
Butch had been following news reports of Hugo’s landfall in Charleston. Forecasters said the storm would pass over the area around Richfield – about 40 miles northeast of Charlotte – around daybreak on September 22. So Butch and his crew started work around 2:30 a.m. to try to get the herd of 180 dairy cows milked before Hugo arrived.
It seemed like a good plan, but the storm moved faster than forecasters expected. Butch and his workers had just started the milking process when Hugo reached them. They’d been working for about an hour when the electricity went out, shutting down the milking machines.
Hugo’s winds were still blowing at around 85 mph when it reached North Carolina, and some residents recalled later that the air smelled like they were at the beach.
The milking crew hooked a portable electric generator to the power takeoff of a tractor and kept the milking machines going. Trees and a few small buildings were going down around them as they worked in the dairy barn. “Debris was flying around through the air,” Butch said.
Postponing the milking until the storm passed wasn’t an option. If cows aren’t milked, it can cause serious health problems or perhaps even kill them, Brooks said.
But Butch’s wife Wanda wasn’t happy about her husband being out in the middle of a howling hurricane. She and their kids rode out Hugo in their basement. Wanda later told me that, as the storm roared outside, she thought to herself, half joking and half seriously, “If (Butch) lives through this, I’ll kill him.”
It took about four hours to get the herd milked. They finished about 6:30 a.m. just as Hugo was finishing its destructive work in Stanly County and moving into the North Carolina mountains. Trees had been blown down across his pasture fences and a couple of small buildings had been destroyed, but no people or animals had been hurt.
Hurricane Hugo cut a path of devastation through the Carolinas and was the most expensive hurricane on record at the time. The storm killed seven people and did about $1 billion worth of damage in North Carolina alone. The total death toll from Hugo in the U.S. and Caribbean was 76, and damages totaled about $10 billion.
Butch said Wanda hasn’t forgotten that September morning 20 years ago. “She reminds me of it rather often, her idiot husband who went out in the middle of a hurricane,” he said.