Hurricane Section 2011

Memories of Hurricane Gracie's devastation long endure

A look at other storms that threatened area

May 26, 2011 

Beaufort County residents knew for weeks destruction was on its way in September 1959.

"They knew it was coming straight at us," said Debbie Jones, a lifelong Beaufortonian who, at 8 years old, survived Hurricane Gracie and several other near-miss hurricanes and evacuations in the years since.

She told The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet in 2009, around the 50th anniversary of that storm's landfall, that residents "were prepared for the worst."

Gracie -- along with the Sea Island Hurricane of 1893, which hit St. Helena Island and killed between 1,000 and 2,000 people -- was one of the most devastating storms to make landfall in or near Beaufort County

In the nearly 50 years since, a handful of other hurricanes have threatened the area but failed to pack the same punch as Gracie. Residents watched fearfully as Hugo in 1989 and Floyd in 1999 came dangerously close, but the county escaped both hurricanes with only heavy rain and a few downed branches.

A POWERFUL PUNCH

The strongest storm of the 1959 Atlantic hurricane season, Gracie delivered peak winds of about 140 mph -- besting the 105 mph winds of a 1940 storm that led to 34 deaths.

Gracie caused 10 deaths in South Carolina and Georgia, including five locally.

The storm cost Beaufort and Jasper counties $1.5 million in damages, according to a Beaufort Gazette article published on the 30-year anniversary of the hurricane.

Former Beaufort County Sheriff J.E. McTeer wrote in a report filed with the National Climatic Data Center that it seemed the winds were whipping at 175 mph.

"I based this estimation on the fact that I saw a water tower containing some 10,000 gallons of water lifted twice by the force of the wind," wrote McTeer, whose own home was destroyed.

William Winn, Beaufort County's director of public safety, was 9 years old and living in Beaufort when Gracie struck.

"To me it was exciting," Winn said. "Everybody was ready, and the storm went in just north of us over St. Helena, so there was no big flooding."

Local and state emergency management systems have steadily improved each year since then, Winn said, despite the lack of a major storm to test them.

"We have much more capability, much better communications, much better planning," he said. "There's been a tremendous change in the response ability in South Carolina. We have a statewide communication system now. (There's been) the extension of the traffic control points from the coast as far in as Columbia, Aiken, Florence. (There's) a strong commitment to resources."

Of the 60 most intense hurricanes that have hit the eastern U.S. since 1851, a handful of storms in addition to Gracie have passed through South Carolina.

HUGO, 1989, CATEGORY 4

Doing more than $7 billion in damages to the U.S. mainland and another $1 billion in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, Hurricane Hugo rocked South Carolina when it made landfall just north of Charleston on Sept. 22.

One of just two Category 4 hurricanes to hit South Carolina since 1851, Hugo killed 21 people in the mainland U.S. as it sent tides as high as 20 feet from Charleston to Myrtle Beach. Hugo stands in the top 10 most costly hurricanes ever, even when adjusted for inflation.

HAZEL, 1954, CATEGORY 4

Hurricane Hazel clipped South Carolina near the North Carolina border on Oct. 15. Myrtle Beach reported wind gusts as high as 106 mph.

It was worse farther north, with gusts estimated at 130 to 150 mph near Cape Fear, N.C.

Hazel caused devastation in three countries. The storm killed between 400 and 1,000 in Haiti and killed 100 with $100 million in damages in Canada after heavy rains and severe flooding. In the U.S., Hazel killed 95 and did $281 million in damages.

UNNAMED CATEGORY 3s

South Carolina was also struck by unnamed Category 3 storms in 1854, 1885, 1893 and 1906.

NEAR MISSES

There was the one that didn't hit. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd wasn't one of the 60 most intense storms in history. But with $4.5 billion in damages, it was one of the top 10 most costly.

Floyd was supposed to crash into South Carolina, but veered north after people were evacuated. Instead, it slammed into North Carolina as a Category 2 and worked its way up the coast.

The rains from Floyd caused most of the damage. Parts of North Carolina received nearly 20 inches of rain. That, on top of rains from a tropical storm a few weeks earlier, caused most of the damage and 50 of the 56 deaths by Floyd.

Also in recent memory, Hurricane Earl hit the Florida panhandle in 1998 and worked its way east to dump wind and rain in South Carolina. Earl was a Category 2 hurricane and caused $15 million in damages.

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