South Carolina Flood Recovery... 123 Years Ago
October's historic flood has been called a thousand-year event. FEMA has estimated that a full recovery in South Carolina will likely take four to seven years. Just a century prior, a recovery that fast would have been unimaginable. In 1893, South Carolina experienced one of the deadliest storms in American history. The Sea Islands Hurricane made landfall in Beaufort, South Carolina turning it from a thriving port city to a "forgotten bywater," says Larry Rowland. He's a historian and co-author of a three-volume book titled, The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina. He discusses the long-term impact of a hurricane just over a century ago.
On the night of August 27, 1893, the only indication of a coming storm were black clouds. Wind and rain began to pick up as midnight grew closer. It was high tide, at the time, which Rowland thinks is what made this storm go from bad to worse. The barrier islands, at an unfortunately low elevation, were completely unprepared for any type of wave, let alone a tsunami. Rowland explains, "you had eight feet of water rushing and driven by 100 mph winds, and then you had 15-20 foot tide surge on top of the high tide. So you have in excess of 20 feet of water surging across these islands driven by 100 mph winds."
"Somewhere near 2000 people lost their lives on the night of August 27, 1893," Rowland adds. Today, insurance maps recognize this storm as a one in 473-year event. Unlike today, there were no sea walls or building codes to prevent structural devastation. Trees were pulled from their roots, "houses were literally lifted off their foundations and rolled in the current," Rowland says. By sunrise, the islands were wiped clean of whatever development was once there. A Beaufort County Sheriff said, as The State reported, the residents on the island were almost entirely African Americans, "they farm on 10 or 20 acres farms. Since the war, many have them had accumulated much, and in recent years have become pretty well-to- do. Now they lose everything in a single night and are as poor as they were at the end of the war."
In a days time, over 40,000 found themselves homeless with no farms, poisoned well-water, and little support at their disposal. In a days time, the storm made national news. Four days after the storm, New York Times reported, "the people are now suffering for food, and 7,000 negroes, who have been driven to Port Royal by the storm from the surrounding islands and the rice and cotton plantations, are starving... several were killed in a fight for provisions." In fact, 85% of those who perished were African American. Over the next fifty years, the overall population of Beaufort County would decline by 38%.
"If a wave of that size hit South Carolina today, damages would certainly less, but there's only so much power sea walls can resist. There's nothing so extreme in nature as the force of water " - Craig Metts, author of "The Great Sea Hurricane & Tidal Wave."
Before the storm, Beaufort's population was nearly equal to that of Charlotte, North Carolina with a thriving phosphate and cotton industry. When those businesses were destroyed by the storm, any survivors who could settle elsewhere, did. Rowland says, "By the 1930s, Beaufort County was one of the poorest places in the United States. Average wages were $90 a year in 1934, ponder that... Beaufort County was truly crushed in the early 20th century, and that process began with the calamity of the hurricane of August 27, 1893."
Though the Sea Islands Hurricane was one of the deadliest storms in American history, it can rarely be found in history books today. A civil engineer and author of a short history on the hurricane, Craig Metts, says, "it was a serious storm... but politically it really wasn't that important for people to document it. It was a storm that no one up 'til now have really examined in a hard way." He says it's often not listed as a major storm, or it is, but as a footnote with Galveston and Hurricane Hugo on either side.
The Sea Islands Hurricane of 1893 was devastating because of its power, but also because there were few preparations for a storm of that magnitude. Today, there are laws preventing the construction of homes in a flood way. If you are in a flood zone, it's now necessary to buy flood insurance. If a wave of that size hit South Carolina today, damages would certainly less, but there's only so much power sea walls can resist. Craig Metts says, "there's nothing so extreme in nature as the force of water "