The Vanishing Georgia Collection of the Georgia Archives has some of the earliest known storm surge photographs. Vanishing Georgia contains many photographs of the storm surge and wind damage from the 1898 category 4 hurricane that crossed Cumberland Island and passed just south of Brunswick.
Earlier posts on this blog concerned tornadoes [often called hurricanes in early Georgia]. With hurricane season entering its most active stage, the time has come to discuss the tropical variety of hurricanes and how they have affected Georgians. August 27th is the anniversary of two of the deadliest hurricanes to strike Georgia: the 1881 storm reported to have killed 700 and the “Great Sea Islands Hurricane” of 1893 with reported deaths up to 2,500.
For years, meteorologists at various Weather Service offices and the National Hurricane Center as well as emergency management personnel with state operations such as GEMA [Georgia Emergency Management Agency] and local emergency management coordinators have worked to educate coastal residents about the risk to Georgia from a major hurricane strike. Since 1898, Georgians have dealt with hurricanes but none of the stronger categories–the so-called major hurricanes, categories 3, 4, and 5. Some Georgians have come to believe that the bend in the American coastline and the normal eastward curving of storms at this latitude protect Georgia from a direct hit. Because no more than a handful of today’s Georgians were alive when the Georgia coast was last hit by a major hurricane, we have to rely on historical records to help make the case for taking any hurricane threat seriously. This blog discusses some of the evidence that exists in the archival record. In this post, I want to highlight some excellent work available online that summarizes and categorizes past storms.
Researchers have mined original records extensively and have compiled extensive data on the paths of hurricanes and the deaths and damage they caused. This summer, the National Hurricane Center updated a useful publication, The Deadliest, Costliest, and Most Intense United States Tropical Cyclones from 1851 to 2010 (and Other Frequently Requested Hurricane Facts) [NOAA Technical Memorandum NWS NHC-6]. PDF and WORD versions are available for download at this site: http://www.hurricanes.gov/dcmi.shtml.
The rankings show that Georgia’s coastal areas suffered the 5th, 6th, and 18th most deadly hurricanes that struck the United States mainland between 1851 and 2010, and those all hit during the last twenty years of the 19th century. The data also show that approximately sixty percent of Georgia’s tropical systems come from the Gulf of Mexico and hit Georgia only after passing across one of our neighbors. All of the hurricanes that did strike the Georgia coast in the past 111 years have been category 2 or less. The authors of the report have a table that calculates the number of years on average between major hurricanes and lesser hurricanes hitting within 50 nautical miles of a particular point on the coast. The “return period” for Brunswick in Glynn County should be 34 years for a major hurricane. The last major storm (a category 4) hit Brunswick in 1898. The return period for a hurricane of any category is eleven years, and the last storm to hit Brunswick was a category one hurricane in 1928. For Savannah, the return period for a major hurricane is 36 years; and the last major hurricane to hit there was the category three “Great Sea Island Hurricane” of 1893. Despite the calculated return period of ten years, the last hurricane of any size to strike Savannah was Hurricane David (a category 2 storm) in 1979.
NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML), Hurricane Research Division (HRD) has been conducting a long-term Atlantic Hurricane Database Re-analysis Project to revise the National Hurricane Center’s North Atlantic hurricane database [HURDAT.] The website, http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/ has updated datasets that one can search for hurricane information.
For those interested in Georgia hurricanes, I recommend the following study. Al Sandrik and Chris Landsea in 2003 published a well-researched list of Southeastern hurricanes, Chronological Listing of Tropical Cyclones affecting North Florida and Coastal Georgia, 1565-1899. http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/Landsea/history/index.html They differentiate between storms that passed offshore or those that actually hit land. This is no easy task, and standards for what is a “hit” have evolved over time. What is especially helpful about their list is that it begins in 1565 well before the Georgia’s official founding with Oglethorpe’s arrival in 1733.
Another source of information about Georgia Hurricanes is the 2006 book published by the University of Georgia Press, Lowcountry Hurricanes: Three Centuries of Storms at Sea and Ashore by Walter J. Fraser Jr., professor emeritus in Georgia Southern University’s Department of History.