Hurricane Gracie hit Beaufort about noon on Sept. 29, 1959, delivering winds of about 140 mph. It was the strongest storm of the 1959 Atlantic hurricane season, the most intense to strike the United States since Hurricane Hazel in 1954 and the first to hit Beaufort since an unnamed storm in 1940 that included winds of 105 mph and 34 deaths. The system was first noted as an area of thunderstorms east of the Lesser Antilles that moved just north of the Greater Antilles, quickly intensifying into a hurricane on Sept. 22. Gracie was a storm that was very difficult to forecast, with its movement unpredictable. After five days of erratic motion, Gracie became a major hurricane which struck Beaufort and weakened as it moved up the Appalachians, relieving drought conditions through much of the region. Gracie became an extratropical cyclone Sept. 30, while moving through the Eastern United States. The estimated loss in Beaufort and Jasper counties exceeded $1.5 million, according to a Sept. 15, 1989, article in The Beaufort Gazette chronicling the 30th anniversary of the storm.
It would be 30 years before another major hurricane struck South Carolina; Hurricane Hugo in September 1989.
When the Gazette, then a weekly newspaper, went to press Sept. 25, 1959, it noted that Gracie "was no threat to this section of the Atlantic coast." It was 230 miles east of Nassau, moving north-northeast at 7 mph.
An area of squall weather was first noted a few hundred miles east of the Lesser Antilles on Sept. 18. The convective area organized into a tropical depression near the north coast of Hispaniola on Sept. 20. After moving west-northwestward for a day, it turned northeastward, where upper level winds were very favorable and steering currents were very weak. On Sept. 22, Gracie was named as a tropical depression before it developed into a tropical storm, then reached hurricane strength later that night. It turned to the east on Sept. 25, drifting slowly eastward and looping south. It then turned abruptly on Sept. 26 and began bearing down on Beaufort. On Sept. 28, Gracie's rate of motion picked up to 12 mph, and hurricane warnings — locally, on radio station WBEU — were issued from Savannah to Wilmington, N.C.
Gracie quickly strengthened and reached its peak of 140-mph winds on Sept. 29, when the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort reported winds of 97 mph and gusts of 138 mph. However, cooler air and land interaction weakened it to a Category 3 hurricane at the time of its landfall over St. Helena Sound, near the south end of Edisto Island.
Impact: Georgia and South Carolina
Storm surge flooding was minimal due to the storm's landfall near the time of low tide. However, Charleston still recorded its highest tide since 1940. Along the coast of southern South Carolina, the storm tide was measured up to 11.9 feet above mean lower low water (the average level of the lowest low tide each day). The United States Coast Guard vessel Bramble evacuated people stranded in Savannah and Charleston on Sept. 30. Gracie killed 10 people in South Carolina and Georgia, most because of wind and rain-induced automobile accidents, falling trees and electrocution by live wires. The Garden Club of South Carolina replaced numerous trees after the storm. Wind damage was quite significant across the state, particularly in Beaufort, with many downed trees, telephone poles and streetlights. Also, numerous windows were shattered, and shingles were torn off of roofs. A number of creeks overflowed causing floodwaters that, in areas, were several feet deep. The opening of the Beaufort Center of the University of South Carolina was delayed because of Gracie.
Impact: Beaufort ravaged
"Beaufort was a lot smaller then. We had people living here who had been through the storm of 1940, and we knew what to expect. and we weren't taken completely by surprise," Marion Jones, the chairman of the American Red Cross in 1959 told The Beaufort Gazette in a 1989 interview. Merchants and residents taped and boarded windows. Citizens stocked up on canned goods, outdoor cooking supplies, candles and batteries and filled bathtubs with jugs of fresh water. "It was exciting, but not the kind of excitement you go looking for," said Howard Cooper, then the editor and publisher of the Gazette.
Thousands of trees were broken or blown down during a storm that ravaged the area for about four hours, and although only a few buildings were completely blown down, virtually all suffered some damage, the Natiional Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., reported. Rooftops or portions of them were missing from almost every home, said Ray Combs Sr., who then served as the American Red Cross executive director in Beaufort. The Red Cross set up a center at the USO building. A new tin roof on Carteret Street Methodist Church was blown off. The Baptist Church of Beaufort was stripped of its roof, too.
The eye of the storm passed over Beaufort. "A dead calm lasted 35 minutes. There was absolutely no wind. It quit as suddenly as it began and the sun appeared and was extremely hot," former Beaufort County Sheriff J.E. McTeer wrote in a report he filed with the National Climatic Data Center. He described the scene from his Coffin Point home. "In seconds, the winds rose up to approximately 175 mph. I based this estimation on the fact that I saw a water tower containing some 10,000 gallons of water lifted twice by the force of the wind." His $75,000 home would be destroyed.
Before the storm was over, more than 3,000 would seek refuge in shelters. The students at the Mather School gathered in Coleman hall during the storm. About 30 huddled in the Gazette office at 310 Charles Street. Until 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 29, Red Cross officials stayed in their offices on West Street. That morning, disaster chairman Richard Wisner and executive director Ray Combs Sr. moved to the county jail. Beaufort Memorial Hospital remained operational. Its generator was big enough to run the entire facility, and the place had drinking water. At the nearby Naval Hospital Beaufort, three babies were born the day the hurricane struck, the Gazette reported at the time.
Five deaths locally were blamed on Gracie — four during the storm, and a lineman who was killed when he stepped in front of a car near the Rebel Drive-in on U.S. 21. Others killed included Charles J. Dickie of Hubbard, Ohio, who was with his family on his way to see his son graduate from Marine Corps boot camp on Parris Island when he was killed in a car accident near Lobeco. Also, James Chapman of St. Helena Island was killed by flying debris as he tried to aid a motorist who had run out of gas.
In the aftermath of the storm, cookouts were numerous. Dry ice was trucked in from Savannah to help preserve food. Others took frozen food to freezer lockers in Ridgeland to prevent spoilage. National guardsmen spent about three weeks cleaning up and preventing looting. The number of guardsmen peaked to about 250. the state sent about 25 generators that were rotated around town between about 30 people and businesses to save frozen foods and medicines.
The Public Health Service moved in to spray insecticides to keep down the mosquito population. On oct. 13, the U.S. Public Health Service began "bombing" mosquito-infested areas. Power was out in many areas for as much as a week. By Oct. 8, about 75 percent of power had been restored and 60 percent of phones were back in operation, with 27 of 45 toll circuits working. In Beaufort, citizens were urged to help with the cleanup. They were asked to leave garbage cans by the curb and to take debris to the rear of Robert Smalls High School, on the present site of the County Government Center. Spoiled food was to be taken to Woodward Avenue for burial by city workmen. Gov. Fritz Hollings asked for an itemized bill of damages; a committee was formed to determine who would get power and other relief equipment; the Small Business Administration set up an office to offer loans to Gracie victims; a 25-man team from the Red Cross tended to residents for about a month. A week after the relief office was set up, 1,200 families had registered at the USO Club and had received $20,000 in purchase orders for food, furniture, clothing and building materials. Before the month was out, more than 1,700 families had sought Red Cross relief and received more than $177,000.
Things slowly began returning to normal in October. The first county fair opened Oct. 26, despite planning that was thrown off schedule. The construction of the Sea Island Motel continued, and a new swing bridge connecting Lady's Island to Port Royal Island, later known as the Richard V. Woods Memorial Bridge, opened. The Red Cross relief office closed in early November, and the Small Business Administration office closed later that month.
Elsewhere in the United States
Heavy rains fell well ahead of the storm along an inverted trough extending north of the storm, causing 6.79 inches of rainfall between the mornings of Sept. 28-29. The highest rainfall amount measured during the storm was 13.20 inches at Big Meadows. The storm spawned seven tornadoes, including one that killed 12 people near Charlottesville, Va. Other tornadoes touched down in the Carolinas and Pennsylvania. For the most part, rainfall from Gracie was beneficial, as it moved up the Appalachians since the area had been in a drought preceding the cyclone.
Edisto Beach was changed forever by Gracie, because of human efforts to renourish the beach after its passage. Most of the shell hash beach currently at Edisto was placed there after Gracie. To expand the beach, an inland marsh was excavated and moved to the shoreline. This created highly desirable beach-front property that led to new development along the coast seaward of Palmetto Boulevard, but also created an environmental catastrophe along the nearby ocean floor. A species of isopod that grows in coastal estuaries, the Cyathura Polita, disappeared from the Ashepoo River after the passage of this hurricane. The Kermadec Petrel, a bird, was swept to Lookout Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania during Gracie, marking the first time it appeared in North America.
Hurricanes that hit near Beaufort
- Aug. 28, 1893: Unnamed storm makes landfall near South Carolina-Georgia border. Winds estimated at more than 120 mph. Loss of life estimated at more than 2,000.
- Aug. 11, 1940: Unnamed storm makes landfall near Beaufort. Winds 105 mph; loss of life 34.
- Sept. 29, 1959: Hurricane Gracie makes landfall near St. Helena Islands. Sustained winds 125 mph, with 8-inch rains.