That's truer now than ever.
Sixteen years ago, on Sept. 21, 1989, Hurricane Hugo ripped through Charleston in much the same manner that Katrina devastated New Orleans. Hugo was a Category 4 storm with a 20-foot tidal surge, the strongest ever to hit the East Coast. Hugo spawned 3,000 tornadoes and destroyed a million board feet of timber. Charleston and surrounding towns lost power, bridges to neighboring islands sank or were swept away, boats lay atop one another on roadways or in nearby marshes, downed trees blocked streets, historic homes and buildings lay in tatters, and the spirit of a 300-year-old city seemed broken.
But not for long.
Charlestonians reclaimed their city through equal measures of hard work, grit, compassion and focus. Veteran Mayor Joe Riley refused to let the pace slacken or people's spirits sag. He touted "inspirational opportunities" -- every day -- to bolster citizen confidence and to keep things moving forward. He's now in his 30th year as Charleston's mayor.
Charleston is considerably smaller than pre-Katrina New Orleans, but its economy and vibe are very similar to ours. Like New Orleans, Charleston relies on tourism and its port to generate jobs. Hugo cut off the flow of visitors, but only for a while. In fact, Charleston's comeback showed that a city with charm and history can rebuild without losing its soul. Interestingly enough, Charleston didn't have to reinvent itself to recover; tourism and maritime industries still anchor the economy.
Charleston today has a recently remodeled open-air market much like our French Market. The buildings along East Bay Street, which leads to the Battery, are a great mix of upscale homes, professional offices, fabulous restaurants (they can hold their own against ours) and busy retailers. There is live music -- including jazz -- at clubs all over the historic downtown, which stays alive until the wee hours with foot traffic.
And it's safe.
Remember a guy named Reuben Greenberg -- the crusading, innovative police chief who cleaned up a city that was paralyzed by crime? His city was Charleston. When Hurricane Hugo hit, he went into the streets during the eye of the storm with other officers to prevent looting.
In Hugo's immediate aftermath, Charleston faced some of the same problems that now plague New Orleans, including a slow response from FEMA. South Carolina U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings called the agency "a bunch of bureaucratic jackasses." An investigation followed, and Congress passed reform legislation that helped FEMA respond better to Hurricane Andrew three years later.
People in Charleston look back at Hugo that way that people in New Orleans already view Katrina -- as the storm that changed everyone and everything, an historical benchmark. For the people of Charleston, the post-Hugo era has been one of major improvements. Best of all, the rebuilding of Charleston has come with great deference to that city's history and character.
There's no reason why New Orleans can't do likewise. The choice is ours.