HISTORIC HURRICANES

The first part of the essay below is adapted from the Do You Know Your Lowcountry column in the Post and Courier, June 10, 2024.
  
Also hear Leigh's discussion of some of the historic hurricanes that have impacted Charleston and the Lowcountry over the years on WCIV's Lowcountry Live show.
  

Even before Charleston’s first permanent European settlers arrived in 1670, tropical storms played a role in our region’s historical narrative. Two years after Christopher Columbus founded his colony on Hispaniola in 1493, it was leveled by a violent storm Caribbean natives believed was sent by an evil spirit named Uracan (sometimes spelled Juracán). Spanish settlers began calling such storms hurricáns, from which we derive the word hurricane.

NOAA’s website lists no fewer than 76 storms that have passed over or by Charleston in the 354 years since the colony was settled, 30 of them major. That’s about one a decade. Other historic sources cite letters and reports that tell of storms that don’t even appear on NOAA’s list. 

Below are recollections of a few of the major storms to cross the Lowcountry in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.

Hurricane of Spanish Repulse, 1686

Six years after moving to the peninsula, Charlestonians awoke at daybreak on Sept. 51686, to what was probably their first major hurricane. Roofs were damaged, and trees toppled into flooded streets along the Cooper River waterfront. Ships were blown ashore, and casualties, both human and among livestock, were referenced, but with few details.

Yet this storm, often referred to as the Hurricane of Spanish Repulse, had a silver lining, as it staved off what might have been an even bigger threat to the young colony – for as it approached, three Spanish ships from St. Augustine were on their way to attack Charles Town. 

Having burned and looted the small Scottish settlement of Stuart Town near Beaufort, as well as a few English settlements on Edisto Island, the Spaniards had just set sail for Charles Town when the storm’s powerful winds nearly destroyed their ships. They limped back to Florida, and the Charles Town colony was saved.  

Hurricane of the Rising Sun, 1700

The Hurricane of the Rising Sun struck Charles Town shortly before high tide on Sept. 14, 1700. The storm draws its name from an 800-ton ship that failed to make it into Charles Town’s harbor in time, foundering outside its bar. About 100 souls onboard perished.

In Lowcountry Hurricanes: Three Centuries of Storms at Sea and Ashore, author Walter J. Fraser includes first-person accounts that give an idea of the storm’s force. In a letter immigrant Edward Hyrne wrote: “... a most terrible Storm of Wind or Hurricane … Thousands of Trees have been torn up by ye Roots, many Houses blown down & more damnified… but ye greatest & most deplorable Loss of all was that of a great Scotch Ship called ye Rising-Sun.”

The winds and waves tore the ship to pieces, leaving the corpses of those aboard strewn along the beaches of Folly and Morris islands. Some credit this incident with “Coffin Island” being listed as a name for Folly Beach on some early maps.

1713

A major hurricanes in 1713 caused extensive damage when it made landfall north of Charleston destroying part of the city’s defensive wall, the look-out tower on Sullivan’s Island, and the new St. Philip’s Church, which was under construction. More than 70 deaths were recorded.

1728

The hurricane of 1728 next struck the city at the height of a yellow fever epidemic, leaving, as one contemporary wrote, Charles Town’s streets “covered with boats, boards, staves; and the inhabitants were obliged to take refuge in the higher stories of their dwelling-houses … Twenty-three ships were driven ashore, most of which were either greatly damaged or dashed to pieces.” Two years later, another storm damaged ships, buildings, and rice fields, including destruction of the Baptist Church.

Great Hurricane of 1752

The Great Hurricane of 1752 was probably the worst hurricane to ever hit Charleston. Eyewitnesses accounts indicate the storm drove 17 feet of water through city streets. All but one of the ships moored in the harbor came crashing ashore. 

The South Carolina Gazette wrote that the storm “has reduced this Town to a very melancholly situation,” adding that at one point during the storm, “many of the people being already up to their necks in water in their houses, began now to think of nothing but certain death.” Had the wind not shifted, “every house and inhabitant in this town, must, in all probability, have perished.” 

The Gazette concluded: “We have daily such a Number of melancholy Accounts from all Parts of the Country, of the Damage sustained on the 15th and 30th [of last month] that they would afford endless Matter for this Paper, were we to publish them.”

After the near-complete destruction of the colony in 1752, the evil spirit Uracan seemed to be appeased for a while. It would be 28 years before the angry god sent another tropical storm in June 1770.

Yet as colonists prepared to fight for their independence from Great Britain, the great Atlantic storms were again heating up. We’ll save those stories for another time.

1783

This strong hurricane tracked along the coast causing significant property damage, but not as much flooding as the 1752 storm.

1804

This large, violent hurricane probably would have ranked as a Category 3 or 4 as it moved north along the Georgia coastline toward southern South Carolina on Sept. 6-8. Though it most likely made landfall before reaching Charleston, it produced significant wind and water damage around the Lowcountry and killed hundreds.

1811

This hurricane made landfall Oct. 6 south of Charleston, spinning off a tornado that caused a lot of damage in the city.

1813

This brief, but violent, hurricane came ashore Aug. 27 causing significant property damage and storm surge flooding similar to the 1752 storm and worse than the 1804 storm.

1822

This likely Category 3 storm made landfall Aug. 27 just north of Charleston, producing severe damage, mainly around the Santee River.

The Great Carolina Hurricane of 1854

This storm made landfall Sept. 7 just south of Savannah as a large Category 3 hurricane. Over the next two days it weakened to a tropical storm as it crossed the Savannah River into South Carolina. Although most of the significant wind damage was south of Charleston, substantial storm surge flooding occurred well northward along the South Carolina coast ruining many crops. This was the first storm to hit the area since the keeping of official records. began in 1851.

1867

This Category 1 storm still holds the record as the earliest landfalling hurricane in the National Weather Service's Charleston area. On June 22, it made landfall at Isle of Palms, then weakened to a tropical storm before moving through the Pee Dee and into central North Carolina.

1874

Made landfall on Seabrook Island as a Category 1 hurricane on Sept. 27/28. Produced downed telegraph lines and extensive wharf/crop damage in Charleston along with two recorded deaths.

Great Hurricane of 1911

The Great Hurricane of 1911 was a gamechanger for Charleston. It made landfall Aug. 27 on Hilton Head Island as a Category 2 storm with winds near 100 mph. It was a reminder that every tropical storm has its own personality, so never underestimate a Cat 2. It moved slowly westward and weakened into a tropical storm before reaching Statesboro, GA. Wind gusts reached 110 mph in Beaufort, 96 mph in Savannah, 95 mph on Edisto Island, and 94 mph at Charleston, SC (before the Weather Bureau's anemometer broke) causing many trees, power lines, and telegraph lines to fall. A significant storm surge produced extensive flood damage, especially from around Beaufort to Charleston. With a storm surge that pushed salt water up into the Lowcountry rice dikes, the Greaet Hurricane of 1911 was the last nail in the coffin of the floundering rice industry, effectively ending the economic engine that had long made Charleston among the wealthiest areas in North America. Smashing boats and docks, it also took a toll on the fishing industry of the Mosquito Fleet.

1912

This tropical storm moved southwest off the South Carolina coast on Sept. 5 before weakening into a tropical depression and making landfall on Ossabaw Island, Ga.

1913

This Category 1 hurricane made landfall on Cape Island, just north of Charleston on Oct. 7. Over the next three days it produced up to 4 inches of rainfall on Charleston and even more in the Pee Dee area of the state.

1916

On May 15, the earliest landfalling tropical storm in the Lowcountry on record came across on Fripp Island.



McClellanville, Hurricane Hugo, 1989