Hurricane Irma is not Beaufort County’s first rodeo.
One of the deadliest hurricanes of all time hit the county in 1893.
And in its wake arose another powerful force: Clara Barton and the American Red Cross.
From the historical marker placed at Penn Center on St. Helena Island in 2008:
“On the night of August 27, 1893, a huge ‘tropical cyclone,’ the largest and most powerful storm to hit S.C. until Hurricane Hugo in 1989, made landfall just east of Savannah. With gusts as high as 120 mph and a storm surge as 12 feet, the worst of the storm struck the Sea Islands near Beaufort — St. Helena, Hilton Head, Daufuskie, Parris and smaller islands were devastated.
“The storm killed more than 2,000 and left more than 70,000 destitute in coastal S.C. and Georgia. Losses in lives and property were most catastrophic among blacks who were former slaves or their descendants. Clara Barton and the American Red Cross launched a massive relief effort, the first after a hurricane in U.S. history. Donations in 1893-94 fed, clothed, and sheltered thousands.”
Today, we would call it a Category 3 storm. But along with the Johnstown Flood of 1889, it ranked as the deadliest natural disaster to date in American history.
Subsequently, the Galveston hurricane of 1900 killed some 6,000 people. And the only stronger storm to hit South Carolina so far was Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
Why so deadly?
People on the isolated sea islands had very little warning. Most never knew what hit them, but many signs were left of tragic desperation. A body was found with its teeth sunk into a floating house beam.
There was no escape. A rushing tide quickly destroyed 21 bridges and “all major connecting ferries had been smashed,” according to the county’s history, “Bridging the Sea Islands’ Past and Present” by Larry Rowland and Stephen Wise.
That flood tide never ebbed, and on top of that roared the deadliest element: the storm surge. It was 15 feet above the normal high tide in downtown Beaufort. On the islands, the tidal wave reached 20 feet.
“It drove across the low-lying islands like a scythe,” the history book says.
Next came the spread of disease and contagious infection — malaria and dysentery.
“Thousands of people were homeless, starving and sick,” the history book says.
The storm wrecked Beaufort as it was in an economic uptick, though storm clouds were already on the horizon.
Not only were crops destroyed, but so were the animals, docks, boats and railroad tracks needed for sustenance.
For the Gullah, who had started with nothing at the end of the Civil War and had begun to see signs of relative prosperity, all was lost in a day.
And the county’s leading industry of phosphate mining never recovered.
Let them eat fish
While local civic leaders responded instantly with a relief committee, the state’s response was nonchalant and Congress refused repeated moves for relief funds.
Days passed before Gov. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman was told about the storm. He expressed compassion and pleaded for donations from the public, but “he grossly underestimated what it would take to relieve the suffering and put the stricken people on the road to recovery,” says the definitive book on the storm, “The Great Sea Island Storm of 1893” by Bill and Fran Marscher.
Most of the victims were black and Republicans. Tillman was a white, racist Democrat. He had fared poorly at the polls in the Beaufort area during that brief time of black suffrage in Reconstruction, which Tillman would help end. Tillman said, “The people have the fish of the sea there to prevent them from starving,” though they had no boats and probably no nets, the Marscher book says.
“In addition, the governor had no background to enable him to evaluate the damage and alleviate the human suffering,” the book says. “He had no way of understanding what a hurricane’s storm surge can do to a community, no disaster relief training or experience and no culture that would have encouraged him to respond with the compassion, wisdom and will so badly needed. He had no emergency relief department, no funds appropriated for the desperate needs the Lowcountry faced.”
Red Cross rescue
Help would pour in from private sources across the state and nation, but the situation struck a chord with Clara Barton.
She had spent nine months on Union-occupied Hilton Head Island and in Beaufort during the Civil War. She knew the lay of the land, and could easily grasp the human toll here.
She arrived three weeks after the hurricane, as soon as Gov. Tillman asked Barton and her fledgling American version of the Red Cross to take over.
It was the worst problem she’d ever faced.
“In the beginning of what became the greatest relief field America had ever known, Clara Barton took on the job of feeding 30,000 hurricane survivors with only $30,000 in donated funds for nine months, until spring crops could be harvested,” the Marscher book says.
The number seeking assistance mushroomed to 70,000 or 75,000.
“Even the savvy, disaster-experienced Clara could not have predicted such a swelling of the numbers,” the book says.
But Barton would later write in her autobiography: “The submerged lands were drained, 300 miles of ditches made, a million feet of lumber purchased and homes built, fields and gardens planted with the best seed in the United States, and the work all done by the people themselves.”