How Hurricane Hugo Shaped the Life of an Emergency Managment Director

Sep 18, 2019

Shannon Scaff (left) and The Weather Channel's Alex Wilson (right) reporting on Hurricane Dorian from downtown Charleston
Credit Victoria Hansen/SC Public Radio

There's a brief lull in the heavy rain that's hit Charleston as Hurricane Dorian lingers off the coast.  The city's Emergency Managment Director Shannon Scaff takes a deep breath. 

He's about to interview live, nationally with The Weather Channel.  He's also relieved.  The storm isn't over yet and already he knows it could have been much worse.

"We got lucky with the tides," he tells the reporter. "The storm surge wasn’t as bad as what was forecasted originally."

Orginally, a more than 10 foot tide was expected to swamp the city's battery wall, higher than both Hurricanes Matthew and Irma.  That didn't happen.  Still,  strong winds toppled trees onto homes, cars and power lines.  At one point, more than 100 roads were closed.

"These storms are difficult and they're unpredictable," he says while gazing out at the ocean from the beach on Sullivan's Island.

Scaff knows many did not follow the governor's evacuation order.  Instead, they waited to see what the storm would do as it inched closer.  But he's experienced what can happen when people wait.  He's seen the look in their eyes.

"Every single person that I rescued, that I put into a rescue basket, they all had that same look. Twelve hours ago, they would have sworn they would never be in that position, every one of them." - Shannon Scaff, Charleston City Emergency Management Director

The 46 year-old has worked for more than 25 years in public service and the military.  He's witnessed some of the nation's worst natural disasters, and he says it all began with a hurricane named Hugo.

"What I distinctly remember is when the eye passed over," he says.  "We all went outside. You could smell the pine and salt in the air, all the way in Summerville."

Scaff was a teenager living with his parents 30 miles inland when Hurricane Hugo roared ashore just after midnight, September 22, 1989.  It whipped up 140 mile per hour sustained winds and a 20 foot storm surge.  He woke to the sound of chainsaws and stories of horror. 

People who sought shelter in a high school cafeteria in McClellanville had to climb rafters to safety, as flood waters rapidly rose. The Ben Sawyer bridge connecting Mount Pleasant to  Sullivan's Island was twisted like the hands of a clock that no longer work, and left dangling in the water.  Huge boats littered lawns.  Hundreds were homeless.  Dozens lost their lives.

"It was just mind blowing," says Scaff.  "It's stayed with me since then."

Shannon Scaff on a rescue mission in North Carolina
Credit U.S. Coast Guard

Scaff says there was someting intriguing about the raw power of the ocean.  It drew him to the water. 

Friends went off to college.  But Scaff was unsure  what he would do. Until one day, during a run in downtown Charleston,  he happened upon a Coast Guard training exercise.

"It's like it him me right in the face.  That's what I'm going to do."

Scaff trained and became one of the Coast Guard's elite rescue swimmers, deploying from helicopters to save lives.  He even earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, given for heroism or extraordinary achievement.  It was for a mission in which he and a team saved four commercial fishermen from their sinking vessel during a nor'easter.

Shannon Scaff lowers from an helicopter into a North Carolina river
Credit U.S. Coast Guard

“It was the roughest conditions I’d ever been in," he says.  "There were 60 foot seas.  It was  January in the middle of the night.”

Another mission, in North Carolina following Hurricane Floyd, opened Scaff's eyes to the dangers of staying behind during storms.

“All you could see was maybe the top two or three feet of a roof top," he says.  "There were aircraft in every direction in a hover engaged in active rescues."

Scaff says he pulled people from trees, cars and rooftops.  He will never forget their eyes.

“Every single person that I rescued, that I put into a rescue basket, they all had that same look," he says. "12 hours ago they would have sworn they would never be in that position, every one of them.  They were all completely surprised and devastated.”

As Charleston's Emergency Management Director, Scaff says most of his work is done before the storm.  For example, he goes out into the community trying to guage if people are willing to evacuate, and why if they're not.  He certainly has plenty of compelling stories to share.

Scaff says he's grateful to represent an amazing team of city employees who work tirelessly during hurricanes like Dorian.  For days they prepare, plan and respond from a maze of third floor offices beyond the stage of Charleston's new performing arts center, the Gaillard Auditorium.  There they stay through the storm's final act.

Scaff says he often wonders, "How did I get here?"  The answer is easy.  A destructive storm 30 years ago helped shape his life.

"It only goes to one thing and that’s hurricane hugo."