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The Storm that Drowned the Sea Islands

Updated: Oct 17, 2022

Sixteen-foot storm surges. 120-mile-per-hour winds. No survivors remain of the most devastating hurricane to ever hit the South Carolina Lowcountry. On August 27, 1893, the Great Sea Island Storm hit Beaufort County in what was to become the 6th deadliest hurricane in United States history.

The Eye of the Storm

Thankfully, with the exception of Hurricane Matthew in 2016, the Carolina Sea Islands have managed to dodge nearly all of the named storms that have headed their way across the Atlantic in recent years. Sadly, this was not the case in the summer of 1893. A couple of days prior to landfall in late August of that year, it had become clear that a major storm was heading toward the Sea Islands. Winds were steadily increasing, and some cautious islanders traveled inland. Most inhabitants, however, stayed home to weather what they hoped would be just another tropical storm in an already rainy season. By the morning of August 27, it was too late for escape. Racing at speeds of 120 miles per hour, the hurricane made landfall just north of Savannah with conditions that would now place it as a Category 3-4 storm. But the worst was yet to come.

A Tide of Death

Still reeling from the force of the winds and rain brought by the hurricane, residents of Beaufort Country had no time to recover before a wall of waves engulfed them later

that day. They watched in horror as a reported 16-foot storm surge (some modern calculations estimate closer to 30 feet of water) engulfed their communities, carrying with it their homes, businesses, boats, crops, and--in many cases--their families. It is estimated that 2,000 Lowcountry residents died (most by drowning), although this number is likely low given that many of the rural islanders had no way to report deaths during the catastrophe. Most area wells had been contaminated by salt water during the surge, leading to sickness and even more deaths in coming weeks as islanders and their mainland neighbors grappled to recover. These sad numbers place the Great Sea Island

Storm on par with 2005's Hurricane Katrina as the sixth-deadliest hurricane in U.S. history. Amidst their grief and hunger, Lowcountry survivors struggled alone for more than a month following the 1893 disaster.

Clara Barton to the Rescue

Already occupied aiding victims of a June hurricane further north on the South Carolina coast, the Red Cross was delayed in offering help for the Sea Island survivors. Finally, in early October, Clara Barton herself (founder of the organization) led a team to the Lowcountry to

begin recovery efforts in earnest. Having spent time during the Civil War on Hilton Head Island, Barton had an affinity for the Sea Islands and personally supervised the formation of a regional foodbank in Beaufort (see photo at left), with subsequent locations set up on the islands themselves. Volunteers for the Red Cross helped island residents rebuild their homes and businesses, drill new wells for fresh water, dig over 35 miles of canals to drain standing salt water, and replant farmland. Ten months later, the Red Cross declared the Sea Island relief effort a success. By 2022 standards, damages from the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 had totaled more than $30 million and, more importantly, had forever changed the lives of countless islanders.

Thanks to modern technology and advanced warning systems, as well as bridges to ease evacuation, today's islanders will likely never face the challenges of those who witnessed the Great Sea Island Storm. Let's hope our beloved Lowcountry continues to dodge every hurricane that blows its way.

(Photos courtesy Beaufort County Historical Society)

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