US Army Corps of Engineers
Charleston District

Hurricane Hugo: 30 Years Later

Published Nov. 27, 2019
Hurricane Hugo 30th Anniversary

After Hurricane Hugo passed through the Charleston area in 1989, residents woke up to see the Ben Sawyer Bridge tipped off its axis into the AIWW. Mark Nelson and the Charleston District were there to help solve the problem and had the bridge up in just a couple of weeks. Read the story of how it happened.

Ben Sawyer Bridge after Hurricane Hugo

After Hurricane Hugo passed through the Charleston area in 1989, residents woke up to see the Ben Sawyer Bridge tipped off its axis into the AIWW. Mark Nelson and the Charleston District were there to help solve the problem and had the bridge up in just a couple of weeks. Read the story of how it happened.

As a Sullivan’s Island resident, every weekday I cross the Ben Sawyer Bridge to head to work at the Charleston District as it is the main connection between the barrier island I live on and the “mainland” of Charleston.

The 240-foot long, 500-ton swing span bridge crosses the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, which the Charleston District maintains as is denoted by the Corps’ Castle prominently displayed on the roadside.

As we approached the 30th anniversary of Hurricane Hugo, a devastating Category 4 hurricane which struck the coast, I discovered one more connection to where I live and where I work. When Hugo struck at midnight on September 21, 1989, it crossed Sullivan’s Island traveling at nearly 25 miles-per hour with hurricane-force winds ranging out 140 miles from the eye and pushing a tidal surge that reached as high as 15 feet above mean sea level. There was major devastation on Sullivan’s Island, including tipping over the Ben Sawyer Bridge into the AIWW. Plus, in 1989, it was the only connection to the barrier islands north of Charleston Harbor.

I recently calculated that I have driven over that bridge approximately 24,000 times in the last 22 years, so you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that the Corps was responsible for one of the biggest efforts in our community after this major storm; putting the bridge back into place after that
fearful night.

The bridge swings on its central axis to open for boat traffic which is too tall to clear the bridge. It sits on a single 18- to 20-inch bronze bearing that rests on its center support pin. During the storm, the bridge slid into the AIWW like a seesaw, with the lower end in the water and the other 110 feet up in the air.

Mark Nelson, former Charleston District chief of design, volunteered to assist the South Carolina Department of Transportation to get the damaged, one million pound bridge back in use for traffic so friends and family could go home.

“I was familiar with these types of bridges because I had worked on four similar ones in North Carolina,” said Nelson. “While working at the Wilmington District, I did design, repair and inspections on swing span bridges.”

The S.C. governor had to officially request the Corps’ help, but he provided a warning- “If you drop that bridge in the water, it’s yours.” Nelson immediately began working on sketches and trying to find a crane big enough to lift that much weight. There wasn’t one, but he did find a contractor in Savannah who said they could help him.

Mother Nature had taken the bridge down and now it was going to help put it back into place. The idea was to lift the bridge with the tide using two barges with a crane and tugs to move it around. Working at night on a high tide, the barges used their crane to begin lifting the sunken end. The bridge came up pretty easily, gradually lifting the bridge above the center pin. The tugs pushed the barges around. The span began moving closer and closer to the center pin where it was supposed to sit and then it stopped, 12 inches short.

“I reached out and started pulling that one million pound bridge,” said Nelson. “We all wanted it to work so badly and we could not get the last foot to budge.”

With the tide beginning to change, the tugs would have to wait for another chance in twelve hours with the next high tide. This time they added a manual crank winch to the equation and it worked. Shortly after midnight, just two weeks after Hugo knocked it down, the bridge was back in place for traffic. Nelson and the contractor became the first people to ride across, but as they did Nelson saw a tug with cabin and dredging equipment headed towards the bridge. He could tell there was not going to be much clearance and held his breath as the tug began lowering all of its antennas and other equipment. The
tug cleared the bridge with only six inches to spare.

“God blessed me with education, training and experience and then put an opportunity in my path,” said Nelson. “It was an honor and a privilege to be able to give back to the people of this community.”

Now as I cross that bridge daily, my smile is even bigger knowing what the Corps did during one of the biggest disasters this area has ever seen.