- Associated Press - Saturday, September 20, 2014

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. was somber that night in 1989 as Hurricane Hugo’s 135 mph winds bore down on South Carolina, wrenching the roof off City Hall, flooding streets, toppling buildings and laying waste to the sea islands near the city.

“All we can do now is pray,” he quietly told a handful of staff and reporters gathered in his candlelit City Hall office as Hugo slammed Charleston, its eye passing over the old city at midnight.

The Category 4 hurricane struck 25 years ago Sunday, claiming 13 lives in South Carolina - out of 49 total killed - and causing $7 billion damage on the U.S. mainland, most of it in the state. It was a defining moment for this almost 350-year old city and the mayor who has served it longer than any other.

“It was the most important time of my service because people’s lives were at stake and people’s futures were at stake,” Riley said during an interview with The Associated Press in the same office a quarter century later.

At 71, his step is slower and his hair grayer than in those days after Hugo when he seemed to be everywhere wearing a T-shirt with the motto “Charleston S.C. Going Strong,” becoming a national figure through endless TV interviews about Charleston’s plight as well as its resilience.



Charleston sports a bustling downtown business district, is a world-renowned tourist town and under Riley’s leadership, in the past decade alone, has poured $200 million into renovations to city buildings and public spaces. Charleston’s stages light up every spring with the internationally known Spoleto Festival U.S.A.

But in the storm’s immediate aftermath, the city was a nightmare landscape of broken trees and hissing gas mains.

Sixty-three buildings collapsed and 350 were severely damaged in the city alone, including a low-income housing complex near the water. Trees and branches littered streets, boats were tossed up on shore and the only bridge linking the mainland to the sea islands northeast of the city was wrenched from its foundation.

In a surreal scene, armed National Guardsmen guarded shattered storefronts in the city’s antiques district. For weeks afterward, blue tarps covered broken roofs and the incessant whine of chain saws filled the air.

Riley spearheaded a relief effort that brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in money and goods, much of it channeled to hard-hit rural areas. He tried never to refuse a broadcast interview, especially from out-of-town news organizations, because every interview could mean cash or relief donations.

He told the world that while money and help were needed, the city largely dependent on tourism was also recovering. “The citizens of Charleston needed jobs and I wanted visitors back here,” he said.

Conferences and conventions were generally held on time that autumn, and the city’s elaborate new waterfront park opened on schedule the following spring. Spoleto went on the boards as planned.

When Riley retires next year he will have served as mayor for 40 years. He is largely credited with bringing a renaissance to a city that, when he took office in the 1970s, had a downtown scarred with vacant lots and shuttered storefronts.

His national prominence after Hugo might have enabled him to springboard to higher office. And indeed, he did mount an unsuccessful race for South Carolina governor in 1994.

Yet while he has also been honored nationally as one of the nation’s outstanding mayors as well as for his vision in urban design, Riley’s legacy will endure mainly in the hometown with which his name is inextricably linked.

Capers Barr III, who has known Riley since the 1960s during their days as Citadel cadets and is his former law partner, said Riley grew as a result of Hugo.

“Major events like that catastrophe can strengthen an individual’s character and resolve,” Barr said. “What I saw was perhaps an even greater sense of purpose and of accomplishment and confidence after being tested the way Charleston and Joe Riley, as its chief executive, were tested.”

Riley said the storm strengthened the realization of what he had already known.

“If you are out working to achieve harder things you have to give it your complete energy which is intellectual energy and creative energy and physical energy and leadership energy,” he said. “It reinforced that.”

One of his most indelible memories of Hugo was not the howling of the hurricane winds but what he didn’t hear. In a city without power or traffic signals, motorists were left to their own devices.

“You had people coming and negotiating intersections and you didn’t hear horns at all. People were patient and there was generosity and kindness and encouragement,” Riley recalled. “They were not giving up but persevering and tending to their own challenges.”

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Associated Press Writer Bruce Smith covered Hurricane Hugo.

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