Researchers Dig Into Georgia Hurricane History

By RUSS BYNUM | May 29, 2012

Before Georgia began its current streak of 114 years without a major hurricane, the state’s coastline was a fairly frequent target in the 1800s.

At least six big storms, some of them responsible for violent death tolls, pounded the Georgia coast between 1804 and 1898. Still, many details remain unknown: Where did some of them make landfall? How intense were these hurricanes on the modern category scale? Were there lesser storms historians have missed?

Two Georgia Southern University researchers hope to fill in some of those gaps. They plan to dig into some of the state’s earliest newspapers, old shipping logs and military base records from the period between 1750 and 1850. Georgia was founded at Savannah as the 13th British colony in 1733.

“It’s not going to be easy,” said Brian Bossak, a professor of environmental health sciences at the Statesboro campus. “We’re definitely going to have to do some real historical sleuthing here.”

Bossak and Georgia Southern geography professor Mark Welford will lead a two-year study funded by $130,000 from the Georgia Sea Grant program, which sponsors research focused on the state’s coastal region.

Georgia is the only Southern state with beachfront property that has escaped more than a century without a direct hit from a hurricane of Category 3 strength or greater. Such storms pack sustained winds of 111 mph or more. With only 100 miles of coast that’s also the westernmost part of the eastern seaboard, Georgia benefits from a small and somewhat sheltered target during the six-month hurricane season that starts June 1.

Georgia had an almost storm-less 20th century. The last one to hit here, Hurricane David in 1979, was a Category 2 storm that did minimal damage. The lack of storms in recent years makes information on hurricanes that hit prior to 1900 even more valuable to researchers and emergency planners.

Prior research, based largely on historical accounts of storm surge and widespread wind and flood damage, has established that six major hurricanes struck Georgia during the 19th century in the years 1804, 1813, 1824, 1854, 1893 and 1898. The hurricane that struck near Savannah in August 1893 was especially destructive, blamed for 2,500 deaths in Georgia and South Carolina. In addition, records have referenced roughly three dozen weaker hurricanes and tropical storms in Georgia during the 1800s, though details are often sketchy.

“We know what the big ones are, but we could definitely refine the record on that,” said Al Sandrik, a National Weather Service forecaster in Jacksonville, Fla., who’s an expert on the hurricane history of Georgia and northern Florida. “As for the lesser ones, there may be storms they find that we’ve missed.”

Besides making their findings available to forecasters, Bossak said the researchers hope that expanding on Georgia’s hurricane history will also serve as a warning to coastal residents who have never suffered a blow from major hurricane in their lifetimes.

That’s one reason Clayton Scott, emergency management chief for Savannah and Chatham County, includes a map of where the big 19th century storms hit in the slideshow he presents to community groups before hurricane season.

“It’s important that we know we are certainly subject to storms,” Scott said. “It’s just luck that we haven’t been hit.”

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