Remembering Gracie

The Beaufort GazetteApril 21, 2013 


Debbie Jones clearly remembers the day in 1959 when her mother scrubbed the bathtub in their Pigeon Point home and filled it with water, preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Gracie.

"That might be all we had to drink and for cooking and everything," said Jones, a lifelong Beaufortonian who survived Gracie and several other near-miss hurricanes and evacuations in the years since. "That just blew my mind at 8 years old."

The adults in the neighborhood had gathered in clusters for weeks, talking about the coming storm and what they could do to be ready for it. Meanwhile, Jones and the other children grew more excited, imagining that Gracie’s destructive winds would blow adventure into town.

"They knew it was coming straight at us," she said. "They were prepared for the worst."

Along with the Sea Island Hurricane of 1893 -- which hit St. Helena Island and killed between 1,000 and 2,000 people -- Gracie 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.

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.

"We all gathered at my mother's house" when Gracie hit, Jones said. "She lost like eight trees in her front yard. One of them fell in the roof, one of them fell in the middle of my granddaddy's pickup truck. The winds were unbelievable."

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.

Amid the fury of wind and rain, the eye of the storm drifted over Beaufort, bringing with it bright sunshine and an eerie calm.

"The eye of the storm passed over us ... and we of course ventured out in the front yard, and it was really strange to see all these power lines and trees down and know the other half of the storm was coming," Jones said. "And then the other half of the storm came, and it was just as scary as the first half."

William Winn, former county emergency management director, 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."

The only thing the county lacks now are better roads inland to help residents of the sea islands evacuate, Winn said. "Because of that, it would still be difficult for us to have an evacuation here."

Jones, who watched the National Guard come into Beaufort to clean up what Gracie left in her wake, said she has become somewhat complacent about the potential that this year’s hurricane season could bring something similar, but she never forgets the harrowing nights of late September 1959.

"It was weeks before you could get around and have drinking water again and have electricity. It was weeks," Jones said. "You couldn't drive anywhere because the roads were covered in trees and power lines. Hopefully everyone has learned from their experience."

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