Thursday, September 22, 2016

Hurricane Hugo: Remembering nurses who worked through the storm

Around midnight on September 22, 1989 Hurricane Hugo made landfall just north of Charleston, South Carolina at Sullivan's Island as a Category 4 storm with estimated maximum winds of 135-140 mph. Hugo produced tremendous wind and storm surge damage along the coast and even produced hurricane force wind gusts several hundred miles inland into western North Carolina. At the time, Hugo was the strongest storm to strike the U.S. in the previous 20-year period and was the nation's costliest hurricane on record in terms of monetary losses (~$7 billion in damage). It is estimated that there were 49 deaths directly related to the storm, 26 of which occurred in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Imagine how many nurses worked through the storm. Were they injured? Did they suffer from PTSD? Did they receive mental health counseling following the storm?
Margot Withrow and John Owen share vivid details of working through the storm. 
“I was recruited to a hospital in Charleston. I started on Monday with an eight-hour orientation and Hurricane Hugo hit that Thursday. When the storm started to make the news the day before, my dad called and urged me to come back home, but I felt I couldn’t “desert the ship.” The travel company said they couldn’t ask us to stay and risk our lives, but made a verbal promise of a $1,000 bonus if we stayed and worked. I stocked up on Sternos and Vienna sausages.    
When I went to work Thursday morning, it was raining “cats and dogs.” I worked 12 hours, then took a cold shower in an operating room and went to catch some sleep in a converted room on a hospital ward. The windows were taped to prevent shattering. Transformers popped like fireworks and cars were floating in the water.

In the moment before the power went out, the TV announced that Hugo was here. The windows blew out, and I moved to the hallway fighting back panic. The backup generators took over. While sitting in a wheelchair in the hall with my head against the wall, I could feel the steel beams moving. I felt I was going to die—oddly peaceful.

An elderly woman coded. The elevators were out and she had to be carried up four flights of steps as emergency response continued. The unit was crazy. Ventilators cut on and off. The patients had to be manually bagged by lay staff and therapists.

In 40 hours, I had maybe 20 minutes sleep and had to face another 12-hour shift. The lab had flooded and the ICU had no windows. The head nurse hadn’t made it in due to the weather, so as the RN, I was in charge of the ICU with six patients, all on ventilators. Of the other two licensed practical nurses, one had no ICU experience and the other had forgotten her blood pressure medicine.
 The septic system had backed up and the smell was awful. I wondered constantly what I had forgotten to do... And then a freshly showered resident turned up asking for labs. I wondered where he had been.

By Friday, the hospital had run low on food but the roads were said to be passable. Trees were down and the National Guard was out. It was like a warzone. I felt addled and disoriented. I was off for the weekend.

While the hospital had generators, my apartment was without power for three weeks. Some weeks later the travel company sent a letter of commendation thanking all who had stayed and risked their lives. The bonus was only $100.

After the Storm

     In April, I began seeing a therapist weekly, at first for weight issues but later with a diagnosis of depression and PTSD. I did this on my own dime, picking up extra shifts to cover. I had survivor’s guilt and often second-guessed myself, not to mention suffering anxiety in thunderstorms. My insurance didn’t cover the therapy. Because of the stigma associated with mental health issues, I feared losing my job if I were to tell anyone.”

Read more of this story written by Margot Withrow and John Owen in chapter 12 "One straw too many: Nursing through blood clots, depression and Hurricane Hugo" in The Exceptional Nurse: Tales from the trenches of truly resilient nurses working with disabilities 
Please feel free to share your thoughts.

With thanks,



  1. I lived in Orangeburg, SC during Hurricane Hugo about 60 miles from the coast. I will never forget the howling wind during the middle of the night. I was thankful it happened during the darkness because I didn't want to have the ability to see the disaster unfolding around my family and myself. It’s an unforgettable image seeing your homeland transformed into a living garbage disposal.

    Twenty-five years later, I was working at NYU Medical Center. I looked out at the East River and prayed "Dear God, I'm getting tired of commuting into the city. If you want me to work closer to home, I need a sign. A clear sign, so I know without a doubt." The next day as I was eating lunch at Panera Bread, something told me "you need to get a generator." Two weeks later, at Panera Bread, the same thought came to my mind "you need to get a generator." I went home after lunch and saw on the news that Hurricane Sandy was coming in my direction. I went straight to Home Depot and ordered a generator. Four days later Hurricane Sandy would come. It would take three days for my generator to arrive due to the bad weather further south.

    Coincidentally, four weeks prior something told me to change my work schedule from Fri/Sat/Sun to Thurs/Fri/Sat. The Sunday that Hurricane Sandy was coming was my first Sunday that I wasn’t working.

    When I got home Sunday morning from working all night I told my husband I had to sleep after working all night. Little did I know that would be my last night working at NYU Medical Center. I told him when I woke up in the afternoon I needed preparations for Hurricane Sandy coming that evening, besides what had already been completed: cash, 20 gallons of water in addition to the canned food items I purchased, the generator with gasoline ready to go, the cars filled with gas, five 5 gallon jugs of gasoline, and a siphon. He it wasn't necessary. Let’s just say we had one of those husband-wife-conversations...I was going back to sleep from working all night and when I woke up it better be here. He reluctantly agreed, despite saying it wasn't necessary.

    Hurricane Sandy came that night and flooded the entire first floor up of NYU Medical Center as the electricity went out over Manhattan. The generator and the backup generator failed. My colleagues helped birth babies in the dark with a flashlight, bagged newborn infants needing help breathing, and walked down 9 flights of stairs transporting them and other mothers-to-be out to ambulances for safety. I was in awe as I watched live news showing my colleagues risking their lives for their patients. Heroes, that's what they are to me and so many more people. Not surprising though, New Yorkers are a tough breed of people.

    On another note, several ATMs were either out of cash or out of electricity. Stores that didn't have electricity couldn't swipe people's cards for purchases. My dear husband was thankful he had got the cash. We were driving one day and couldn't figure out why the right lane was backed up for 1/4 mile. As we went in the left lane we saw what was happening. Everyone was in line to fill their cars with gasoline or standing in line with red jugs to hold gasoline. Afterwards, New York and New Jersey started rationing gasoline. Waiting in line for gasoline would be 3-6 hours. We never had to wait. My dear husband was glad he had that extra gasoline. You know, that extra gasoline that wasn't necessary. To him, I was his hero. We never had to wait in line for gas until the rationing was over 6 weeks later.

    I remembered my prayer. My mom said I needed to be careful what I pray about because He listens to my prayers. My hospital was closed down for over 3 months for renovations. I got another job and wasn't commuting into the city anymore to work. I thanked Hurricane Hugo for having me prepared me for Hurricane Sandy. And I am thankful for that small still voice telling me weeks in advance to change my work schedule and get a generator. Listening is an important survival skill.

  2. Dr. Silva,

    I read over your comments twice. So moving....thanks so much for sharing such vivid memories.

    I hope your colleagues at NYU (yes heroes!) got the thanks and help they deserved following the storm.

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