Mark Washburn

Charleston’s greatest hits: A city long bruised by punches from the sea

King Street in Charleston lined with debris after 1989’s strike by Hurricane Hugo.
King Street in Charleston lined with debris after 1989’s strike by Hurricane Hugo. AP Lasercolor

This is a city muscled in misfortune – hurricanes, earthquakes, civil war and the most famed of all pirates.

Now it sits, low-slung and staring once again at the tempestuous Atlantic, awaiting the next notch in its belt – the fierce, deadly Hurricane Matthew.

Leaving hundreds dead in the Caribbean and buzz-sawing its way up the southeastern coast, Matthew is expected to be felt in this colonial gem Friday, well ahead of its arrival this weekend.

Well-turtled beneath barriers of plywood, shutters and sand bags, Charleston is hunkered down once again in a centuries-long drill against a capricious sea.

While forecasters expect the storm to weaken as it moves to cooler waters, it is still threatening to pummel the coast with at least 12 hours of torrential rainfall, a potentially devastating flood risk along with a wicked sea-surge.

Gusts of wind far-flung from the dynamo of Matthew were already being felt early Friday in Charleston.

It’s just Hugo

When people here talk hurricanes, they talk about Hugo. That’s not “Hurricane Hugo,” just Hugo, like a familiar, trouble-making neighbor well-remembered here. It needs no appellation, no courtesy title.

It was, and is, the greatest calamity of living memory. It drove ashore here one terrifying night in September 1989.

So great was it power, it twisted the steel of the Ben Sawyer Bridge like a pretzel, ripped off roofs and kicked over forests. Two people drowned huddled in their homes. It charged deep into the night and ravaged distant Charlotte before daybreak.

Everyone remembers Hugo, just Hugo, but it was just one of many fiends to emerge from the sea.

Coastal development

In the 1954, Hurricane Hazel – its eventual death toll was set at 1,000 – set the decade’s benchmark in North Carolina for killer storms. But it was 1959’s Hurricane Gracie that made history here. It surged ashore as a powerful Category 4, only the third in the state’s history and the first big one to slash ashore during the early days of coastal development.

Edisto Island was basically buried with its debris. Beaufort took years to rebuild.

Many of its great storms were lost in its long history, but the most violent were recorded, dating nearly as far back as the city’s settlement in the 1660s.

On Sept. 25, 1686, crops and livestock were killed by a powerful storm, believed to be the first historic account of a hurricane in Charleston. Good things sometimes come from bad things – the storm also drove off Spanish invaders and sank one of their galleons.

Charleston was all but ruined by an autumn hurricane in 1700, which dashed to bits a Scottish ship, the Rising Sun from Glasgow full of settlers. It was minutes from making port when the storm rose, and all aboard drowned.

Storm of 1893

Striking unmercifully at high tide on Aug. 28, the maelstrom known as the “Great Storm of 1893” pushed an enormous 16-foot dome of water onto the outlying islands, a tidal wave that submerged seaside villages.

Winds estimated at 120 mph ripped up Charleston and the death toll was estimated at more than 2,000. Tens of thousands more were left homeless, desperate and starving in the apocalyptic aftermath.

Clara Barton wrote in her autobiography that 20,000 refugees of coastal communities straggled into the streets of Beaufort.

She led efforts to provide food distribution back to the stricken islands to lure them homeward. It was the first major hurricane relief operation undertaken by the American Red Cross, a hurricane footnote in American history set in South Carolina’s Low Country.

Charleston was also hit from below – on the night of Aug. 31, 1886, the city was shaken to its roots by the most powerful earthquake believed to have struck the eastern United States.

Felt as far away as Chicago and Boston, the mechanics of the quake that killed dozens are still little understood today, but its effects are obvious to anyone who has taken a tour of the city’s historic district – reinforcing earthquake bolts are visible in old buildings to this day.

Another assault

It fired the opening shots from shore batteries to provide the flint-strike of the Civil War on Fort Sumter. But it had plenty of warfare in centuries earlier.

One of Charleston’s most memorable assaults from the sea came not from weather, but the renowned pirate Edward Teach, who you know as Blackbeard.

He arrived with his fleet from his North Carolina stronghold in May of 1718 and blockaded the harbor. He plundered nearly a dozen vessels, then took prominent citizens hostage.

An erratic psychopath, Blackbeard sent his ransom demand to the elite of the then-richest city in the southeast: Medical supplies.

Scratching its collective head, wealthy-beyond-belief Charleston capitulated. A surgeon’s trunk came by boat.

And Blackbeard quickly withdrew (after collecting all valuables from his “guests”). It was perhaps the most peaceful friction Charleston ever suffered by sea.

Today, the city awaits the next chapter in its storied history with the elements, the great ocean that has brought it through the centuries such riches. And, like with Blackbeard, has often demanded a capricious price.

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashburnChObs