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History of Savannah area Hurricanes

By: Patrick Prokop, WTOC TV Meteorologist … Tropical Storm Season 2006


Will a Hurricane ever strike Savannah or what about Hilton Head and Beaufort, or St. Simons and Brunswick? I have been asked that question many times in the past 26 years since I came to the area. My answer is always an indefinite one but always with a note of concern because I know of the history of this location. Hurricanes have hit this region in the past and will undoubtedly hit again in the future, I just cannot say, nor anyone else, when. Just knowing that bit of uncertainty, then we must prepare ourselves for the times when they will. If we read a chapter out of the book of hurricanes that have hit the Georgia and southern South Carolina coast, we can get an idea of the threat that is imposed upon us.

Past Hurricanes:

The last storm to actually make landfall in the greater Savannah area was hurricane "David" in 1979 (September 4), with winds of 92 mph as it was just off Ossabaw sound. The storm moved ashore just south of Savannah moving northward but it weaken rapidly as it passed over Savannah and perhaps was not even a hurricane when it went over the city on that Labor Day. However, many residents suffered without electricity for more than a week and in some cases even two weeks, as the result of felled power lines due to that storm.

In 1999, the center of large hurricane “Floyd” spared the area by passing 119 miles east of Tybee but the category 4 storm caused a major evacuation nightmare over the entire SE. Hurricane “Hugo” came very near to the area with the eye of the storm about 60 miles east of our coast striking a terrible blow to Charleston with 135 mph winds and a near 20 foot storm surge near McClellanville. One of the spiral arms of “Hugo” did passed through Savannah with sustained 60-70 mph winds and heavy rains.

In 1959, hurricane "Gracie" just missed Savannah making landfall just north of Beaufort, SC. This strong category two storm produce much damage from Beaufort to Charleston. In 1964, "Dora" brushed across South Georgia after moving onshore near Jacksonville, FL, but this storm was too far south to produce any major effects upon us. The last hurricane to come ashore in Georgia before "David" was in 1947 which was weak by hurricane standards. This storm had winds probably less than 100 mph but was known for its "Hitting twice" as reported by many of those who tell of that day. (It didn’t hit twice but instead, the eye of the storm passed directly over the city giving the allusion of a double hit.) The 1947 storm was also known for a cloud seeding experiment within “Project Cirrus”. Unfortunately, the experiment produced no beneficial results.

A storm in 1940 was by far the worst of the three that hit our area in the twentieth century, a little less strong than "Hugo" that hit Charleston in 1989. The storm of 1940 produced at least 105 mph winds in Wright Square in downtown Savannah and produced considerable tree and structural damage thought out the area. Prior to that time, no other hurricane had hit the Savannah area or even the Georgia coast since 1898.

If you look at the history of hurricanes that have made landfall along the Georgia coast during the 1900's, you might ask yourself, "Why all the worry?" Only three storms have slammed into the coast in the past 106 years (1900-present)! Is there a need to be concerned? The answer is found by reading more from the book that Mother Nature wrote. If this book has only three chapters, the 1900s was chapter two. By reading this section of the book, indeed, a feeling of false security could easily befall upon us. We need to read chapter one, "Hurricanes that have hit the Georgia and Southern South Carolina Coast in the 1800's." This section of history will open your eyes!


Storms of the 1800s

While only three hurricanes hit the Georgia and the extreme Southern South Carolina coast in the 1900s, twelve such storms produced havoc for the developing coast during the 1800s. And unlike the weaker storms of the 1900s, in many cases, these storms were much more fierce!

In the 1890s alone, five hurricanes stuck the area with two in 1898 and two in 1893. Other strong storms produced wide spread damage in 1884, 1854 and in 1824. The storm in 1824 washed out all bridges between Darien and Savannah and was as destructive as a storm that hit in 1804. That storm was most likely the worst storm during that century, stronger than the 1893 one. The main reason there was not too much notoriety from it was because there wasn't too much built yet to be destroyed! The entire state was less than a hundred years old at that time. But Aaron Burr, the Aaron Burr who dueled with and killed Alexander Hamilton, was living on St. Simons Island at the time and wrote an account in of the storm. His accounts indicated that the eye passed directly over the island and destroyed nearly everything and killed many slaves and livestock. The loss of life was extensive and hardship was immense. The storm made its way up the coast destroying just about all in its path, passing over Savannah and moving into South Carolina. The storm destroyed Ft. Green which was the rebuilt of the original garrison, Forth George, which was destroyed in an earlier hurricane in 1756. The site of the ruins was later rebuilt under the commission of Robert E. Lee and renamed, Ft. Pulaski.


The Terrible Storm of 1893

On August 27, 1893, a ferocious storm was approaching the coast of Georgia. Storm warnings were up but the storm was much stronger that what could have ever been imagined. The people of Tybee battened down the hatches and prepared for "Another one" as hurricanes were a semi common storm during this period. But the storm proved to be too much for many of the people on the islands that day as winds continued to accelerate to beyond 100 mph then 120 and perhaps gusting even up to 150 mph!

For those who stayed, their worse fears became reality. As the eye of the storm moved overhead, the winds suddenly died and a period of tranquility existed on the island. The residents being "Storm-wise" knew that the winds would hit again and at the same force except from the opposite direction very shortly. They also knew of a terrible storm surge that was now just moments away. This would be an awful wall of water like a 20 foot tide crashing onshore in less than 30 minutes with waves of 20-25 feet on top of it! The ferocious winds earlier had already greatly weakened their homes; they knew there was not much chance of surviving in them. Their only chance for survival would be to climb the tallest trees and tie themselves in and hope and pray that they would be above the water and not be blown away. They eye of the storm went right over Tybee and into South Carolina bringing in that expected storm surge and it inundated all land east of the Wilmington river. When it was all over, more than 2,000 persons died in that storm from Savannah northward to Charleston, many washed out to sea.

This first chapter (hurricanes of the 1800s) of weather history tells of a completely different account than that of chapter two (hurricanes of the 1900s). Knowing about the history of hurricanes in the 1800's informs us that these storms did rake the coast in the past. But is the postulate that perhaps the climate is changing and the history of the 1900's of fewer hurricanes going to be the rule? Or is the assumption true that the climate has not dramatically changed and storm frequency of the 1800's is more of what we should expect? It seems that there are cycles of meteorological events that occur and that we might be moving out of a portion of one cycle back into another one. It also seems that once a storm hits an area, that same area is more likely to be hit again very soon.


Predictions

Predictions from the NOAA tropical weather research scientist indicate that this could be an active tropical season. The outlook calls for much above normal activity. It has been much too long since storms of great magnitude have hit our area and property development continues to explode along our coastal region due to this relative period of quiet tropical activity. The potential for capital destruction and financial loss continues to grow along with this development. The needs for advanced warnings are growing faster than the technical improvements currently being developed in storm measurements which aid the meteorologists that are assigned to deliver it. The margin of safety to carefully evacuate our residents out of the fury of the storm continues to become an ever increasing dilemma.

Living in the Coastal regions of Georgia and South Carolina has many pleasures and advantages but there does come a time when protective measures must be addressed. The main disadvantages of living in our area are the threats imposed by possible hurricane landfall. Even though it is a rare event, hurricanes have affected the region in the past, and will affect our region in the future. It is important to know the severity of this threat and how to act when the threat becomes a reality. There is no room for mistakes or ignorance when it comes to protecting our lives and to those to whom we carry responsibility.

A major hurricane impacting our coast will cause more than just horrendous flooding over the community. The power of the winds will be devastating, destroying or heavily damaging many of the places we call home, where we work, where we recreate and even the places we pray. These normal places of sanctuary in our everyday life could become the horror of destruction and even death during a hurricane.


Listen to the Experts

To avoid the destructive turmoil of nature’s most fierce storm is to understand the problem. To understand this problem we must acquire the knowledge of what must be done to remain safe and that is; reinforcing our homes to assure protection or just getting out of harm’s way until the fury of the storm passes by. When the damage potential becomes so great that our homes no longer offer a secure haven, it then becomes necessary to evacuate in order to remain safe. Keep in mind, the odds are in our favor that we will have homes to return to after the storm passes by, and that’s the good news. The bad news is the odds are not zero that our homes will be spared in the event that the storm moved through our community.

Even with today’s technology, it is still impossible to accurately predict the exact path a hurricane will take. Large amounts of uncertainty can produce small deviations in the forecast path of these destructive storms, a path that could bring the storm through our community. There will be times you will be asked and even ordered to evacuate your home even when it appears the storm won’t hit. It would be foolish to second guess the experts, who have a great understanding of the nature of these storms, when the stakes are so high. To second guess when evacuation is suggested is to take an immense chance on your safety. It is one thing to take a chance on the forecast of rain; if you are wrong, you end up getting wet. To guess wrong on the forecast of a hurricane though could result in major hardship or even cost your life or the lives of those whom you are responsible and perhaps even the life of someone trying to rescue you during the fury of the storm.

Learn the lessons of the past and have a solid plan of action in the event of a storm threat. Know of the awful destructive power of the storm and the vast extent of it. Also visualize the major inconveniences and hardships that will be afflicted upon those who stay. Remember; “Those who fail to learn from history are surely condemned to repeat it.”

Chapter three of the book of hurricane history along the Georgia and southern South Carolina coast is ready to begin. What will it say about us?


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