Gullah/Geechee: Surviving the Storms Since 1893
In 2005, after a year of planning the inaugural “Gullah/Geechee Nation International Music & Movement Festival™” on my home island of St. Helena, I could not believe that I was hearing predictions of a hurricane that might make its way up our coast that same weekend. As the days went on and we continued to pray and to plan, we found that the storm was turning and would move to other land. We had no idea throughout the weekend as the sun continued to shine on the islands in the sea of what was happening further west to the rest of our family.
During the event, a sister had been trying to reach the family back home in New Orleans, but for days they had not been heard from or even seen. We went to the ocean and did an ancestral tribute. I prayed and at the end I let her know, you will soon hear from the family. Look ya! Disya de trut!
We walked to the car and when we got in, the cell phone rang and she answered and soon started to grin. The folks on the other line where the family that had emerged. Unfortunately, they had a story of horror because there had been more than a storm surge. The entire city had gone under water and more than souls had been purged. The family had flooded under and some had drowned. The horns were not playing and there was no drum to sound. The city of music had stopped playing and folks were trying to find where family had been staying. Some had been on rooftops for days and had prayed and prayed. Yet, instead of understanding the economic plight, folks asked why they stayed!
As our festival ended, I turned on the TV and could not believe the images that I would see. Folks were begging for help and some floated around. There were image that were kept off TV and were sent underground. They didn’t want anyone to truly see what had become a reality that all it takes is one storm and you could lose that which you thought you would forever see. To this day, I can hear folks screaming out-What about me?
My heart tends to hurt each August as I reflect back on the storms that I have lived through literally and figuratively and then I thank God that none of the storms that I stayed through on St. Helena Island had ever become as bad as they could be. As I realized that this week held the dates of major storms that have taken place to our coast and impacted Gullah/Geechees over time, I knew that I had to write to make people more aware. As we ignore protecting and restoring our coast and the climate change issues that are already here, we may then be complicit in our own despair.
Many remember the massive damage of Hugo in 1989 which was after 10 years after David that many of us prayed and stayed through in September 1979. The Sea Islands of the Gullah/Geechee Nation have endured a number of hurricanes and tropical storms since our ancestors arrived on this soil from Africa. Of course initially, there was no systems to detect them coming and to warn folks to batten down the hatches. Prior to the naming system, on September 17, 1945 there was a Category 3 hurricane that many elders still recall. Once they named them, family started to speak of the storms like they were family members and some people were even named after the storms.
Hazel came in October of 1954. Hazel was a Category 4 storm which made landfall near Little River, S.C. with 106-miles per hour winds and 16.9 foot storm surge. One person was killed and damage was estimated at $27 million. This included the destruction to the Atlantic Beach boardwalk and hotel and numerous summer homes and businesses that were located in the Gullah/Geechee incorporated township. Fortunately, since their major season had ended, there were few people living at Atlantic Beach and many of the business were boarded up for the fall and winter. Yet, the boards could not hold back the power and impact of the storm.
In September 1959 in swept Gracie, a Category 3 hurricane. She made landfall on St. Helena Island, SC and continued toward the north-northwest, maintaining hurricane strength for more than 100 miles inland. Heavy damage occurred along the coast from Beaufort to Charleston. Many on the islands still recall exactly where they were and how they watched houses float off their foundations and caught drowning chickens floating by to cook as the family stayed together in the house as it rocked back and forth with the wind and the blowing rains.
In the 1600 and 1700s tropical storms and hurricanes were known as “September gales.” The one that struck Charles Town on September 25, 1686, was written of as “wonderfully horrid and destructive…Corne is all beaten down and lyes rotting on the ground… Aboundance of our hoggs and Cattle were killed in the Tempest by the falls of Trees…”
In the fall of 1700, “a dreadful hurricane happened at Charles Town which did great damage and threatened that total destruction of the Town, the lands on which it is built being low and level and not many feet about high water mark, the swelling sea rushed in with amazing impetuosity, and obliged the inhabitants to fly to shelter… A ship, Rising Sun, out of Glasgow and filled with settlers had made port just prior to the storm’s landfall. It was dashed to pieces and all on board perished.” Many are concerned about the type of flooding that will over take the historic peninsula in the event of another major storm given what has been consistently taking place due to rain fall and with the history of Hugo still in the minds of many.
Charles Town which is now, Charleston,SC was not the only place hit in the South Carolina region of the Gullah/Geechee coast over the year. From September 7 to 9, 1854, Adele Pettigru Allston wrote from Pawleys Island, “The tide was higher than has been known since the storm of 1822. Harvest had just commenced and that damage to the crops in immense. From Waverly to Pee Dee not a bank nor any appearance of land was to be seen…(just) one rolling, dashing Sea, and the water was Salt as the Sea.”
Following these was a storm that is now believed to have been a Category 4 and is now called the “Great Storm of 1893” which struck the southern on coast on August 20. By 1893, major population centers could be telegraphically alerted to storms moving along the coast. However, the Sea Islands did not have the technology for the warnings to get to them. Even today, towers are limited for cell phones and Wifi is spotty on the Sea Islands. So, people have to consider maintaining the use of ham and storm radios as well as making sure that they have ground telephone lines in the event that there is a storm that knocks out these signals and even the satellites and lights.
The “Great Storm of 1893” struck the south coast at high tide on August 28. This pushed a major storm surge ahead of it and created a “tidal wave” that swept over and submerged entire islands. The maximum winds in the Beaufort area were estimated to have been 125 miles per hour. In Charleston the winds were estimated near 120 miles per hour. Days after the waters subsided, at least 2,000 people lost their lives and an estimated 20,000-30,000 were left homeless. The community had to come together to try to restore places for their families to continue to live. Many Gullah/Geechees families that are here today, stood the storm due to God protection.
Many elders that had been babies during the time of the Great Storm of 1893 were still around when Hugo made landfall near Sullivan’s Island with 120 knot winds in September of 1989. It continued northwest at 25-30 miles per hour and maintained hurricane force winds as far inland as Sumter. The hurricane caused 13 directly related deaths and 22 indirectly related deaths, and several hundred injuries in South Carolina. Damage in the State was estimated to exceed $7 billion, including $2 billion in crop damage. The forests in 36 counties along the path of the storm sustained major damage and we are just seeing some of the vegetation regrowth along the coast today especially in those areas that are a part of the United State National Wildlife Refuges.
From 1990 to 2009, South Carolina has had three weak tropical cyclone landfalls along the coast: Tropical Storm Kyle (35 kts) in 2002, Hurricane Gaston (65 kts) and Hurricane Charley (70 kts) in 2004. During September 1999 Hurricane Floyd skirted the South Carolina coast, then made landfall near Cape Fear, North Carolina. Hurricane Floyd was a very powerful Cape Verde-type hurricane. It was the sixth named storm, fourth hurricane, and third major hurricane in the 1999 Atlantic hurricane season. Floyd triggered the third largest evacuation in US history (behind Hurricane Gustav and Hurricane Rita, respectively) when 2.6 million coastal residents of five states were ordered from their homes as it approached. The hurricane formed off the coast of Africa as most do and traveled the path that enslavement vessels did to arrive at the Gullah/Geechee Nation coast. It lasted from September 7 to September 19. Heavy rain of more than 15 inches fell in parts of Horry County, S.C., causing major flooding along the Waccamaw River in and around the city of Conway for a month. North Carolina received the brunt of the storm’s destruction. In all, Hurricane Floyd caused 35 fatalities in North Carolina, much of them from freshwater flooding, as well as billions in damage.
The storm surge from the large hurricane amounted to 9–10 ft (2.7–3.0 m) along the southeastern portion of the state. The hurricane also spawned numerous tornadoes, most of which caused only minor damage. Damage to power lines left over 500,000 customers without electricity at some point during the storm. This water added to that which had been left by Hurricane Dennis which had happened a few weeks before and brought up to 15 in (380 mm) of rain to southeastern North Carolina which is the northern most point of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. When Hurricane Floyd moved across the state in early September, it produced torrential rainfall, amounting to a maximum of 19.06 in (484 mm) in Wilmington, NC. Damage came to many of the towns including Seabreeze which was founded by Gullah/Geechees.
Seabreeze, NC suffered major damage from Hurricane Hazel in 1954. The worst damage at that time was beach erosion. This got exacerbated when the artificial Carolina Beach Inlet opened in 1952. Many of the older landmarks were blown down or washed away by hurricanes in the 1990s and the town in currently struggling to keep the few historic jump joints that are there and to reopen new bed and breakfasts and homes there while the county now seeks to rezone them and also wash away the story of this Gullah/Geechee area along with the sands and sea that have washed in and out over time.
In October 2012, the Gullah/Geechee Fishing Association members stood together on the shoreline of Hunting Island, SC the morning of the Gullah/Geechee Seafood Festival and watched the rain slow down and move northward and the sun come out as Hurricane Sandy traveled the predicted path. The weather forecasters had aired a path that had the storm travel up Florida and curve back out into the Atlantic Ocean just below Jacksonville, FL in the Gullah/Geechee Nation and curve back inward onto land north of Jacksonville, NC and the Cape Fear Region of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. Witnessing the accuracy of the prediction was amazing and one that we gave God thanks for as we prayed together along the shore before roasting oysters that day. We talked about how our ancestors survived and how Gullah/Geechees will always stay together even through the storm and help each other to survive.
If we are to keep the Gullah/Geechee Nation truly above water and to continue to stand the test of time together as we live in a space that is on the front line of extreme weather patterns and are a part of the climate change discussion, we need to examine the ways that Gullah/Geechee traditions have been kept in tact and how the model of the family compound-ideologically, ecologically, intellectually, and spiritually has been a key component in the “resilience” of my people to be in the storm this long and to still carry on.
Tru it all, tenki tenki ta Gawd fa anointin we fa be Gullah/Geechee an fa holdin up de land fa de nayshun a de Gullah/Geechee.
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