Thursday, September 22, 2005

Tennessee is my second home, the home of my adulthood. I grew up, as did all of my family going back several generations, on the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands.

The 1893 Sea Islands Hurricane

As we witness the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina and watch, with horror and fascination as Hurricane Rita churns her monstrous way toward Texas, it is easy to think, "Surely we have not seen the like of these storms before."

I've been wanting to write about the Sea Islands Hurricane since Katrina struck. Partly because I was honored to hear a first hand account when I was a youngster from an ancient black man who was my nanny's father. Joe Kinlaw was 98 when I saw his milky cataract-veiled eyes well up with tears at the recollection. I sat on the old heart pine blanket chest in his two room block house and heard a tale of unbelievable destruction. Bodies buried in shallow graves, flood, disease and the unbelievable stench of rotting corpses of animals and people.

Joe didn't have an inch of dark black skin that wasn't creased from a lifetime of tilling his crops with his mule on his Buck Island farm. He was a slight man, bent from a lifetime of broken promises. But he was strangely happy given all he had seen in his life and had the funny chortling laugh that Katie had...the laugh I inherited from the black woman who raised me practically from birth.

The Sea Island Hurricane struck August 27th, 1893, bearing down upon Savannah, Georgia and affecting the entire stretch of coastline on either side. It is hard to guage how many actually died but it is placed between 1000 and 3000, mostly the poor black population. Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross who supervised the 10 month long relief effort, placed those numbers much higher. 30,000 were left homeless and starving, their crops ruined and the farm land salted by the storm surge.

The Sea Island Hurricane, like Katrina, chose its victims from the poor disenfranchised people of the coast. Like Katrina, accounts reflect that they had at least three days warning of the storm, but those who could not afford to flee inland were the ones who paid the ultimate price. Like Katrina, The Sea Island storm was followed by another terrible storm, The 1893 Charleston Hurricane. The US government did nothing to assist in the relief efforts in 1893. Over 100 years later, with all the benefits of our technology, we could not get our most vulnerable citizens out of the way of a killer storm. So much for "Lessons Learned". How many lessons do we need?

In 1894, Scribner's Magazine ran a long article about the storm and the relief effort. It tells the story much better than I could, but keep in mind the period when reading it. Attitudes toward blacks of the era are reflected in the writing.

Scribners Article

Here are some excerpts:

"Two thousand persons, the great majority of them Negroes, were drowned or killed on the night of the storm. The others died from exposure, from a lack of food, or from the malarial fever that was epidemic on the islands during the hot September days that succeeded the disturbance."

"One peculiarity of this storm was that the aged, the very young, and the infirm were all killed. The survivors were young men in the vigor of manhood. Very few were seriously wounded, and hundreds were found without a bruise on their bodies. They were killed by the sheer pressure and fury of the wind. In the settlements where the storm was worst, not a single child survived, and very few women."

"Fortunately for the survivors, they were in reach of immediate aid. They lived near New Orleans, one of the richest and most charitable communities in the country, a community in which the organization of benevolence has reached the highest point of efficiency. Relief was instantly forthcoming; there was not a moments delay."

"One moment she had five children clinging to her, in another moment there were only two. The angry winds and the hungry waters had torn them from her and swept them out of hearing before they could utter a cry. But what this wom an said did not run in the direction of grief. 'I glad to God I got two lil' one lef'.'"

"It is estimated - and the estimate is not in the nature of a rough guess - that two thousand five hundred lives were lost in the islands and on the adjacent coast. The truth would not be missed very far if the number were placed at three thousand. Not all of those were lost in the storm. Two thousand persons, the great majority of them Negroes, were drowned or killed on the night of the storm. The others died from exposure, from a lack of food, or from the malarial fever that was epidemic on the islands during the hot September days that succeeded the disturbance."

"As a matter of fact, the Red Cross Society as I saw it at Beaufort is something entirely different from any other relief organization that has come under my observation. Its strongest and most admirable feature is its extreme simplicity. The perfection of its machinery is shown by the apparent absence of all machinery. There are no exhibitions of self-importance. There is no display -no torturous cross-examination of applicants - no needless delay. And yet nothing is done blindly, or hastily, or indifferently."

Perhaps my knowlege of this 1893 storm colored my reactions to Katrina. Knowing that New Orleans came to the aid of my homeland so swiftly when we were decimated made me want to help even more keenly. Our memories are long here in the South. Our gratitude reaches across the centuries.

I know, as surely as I know anything, that happiness, music and humid summer breezes dancing in spanish moss will return to New Orleans...just as they returned to Beaufort and Savannah. And God Bless the Red Cross for being there then...and being there now.

Other Sea Island Hurricane and Red Cross Links:

American Red Cross Museum: African Americans in the American Red Cross

Her baby had died and she was glad.

Not that Margaret Workman didn't love her son. But his death in July meant that he wasn't with the family at Tybee Island a month later on Aug. 27, 1893

Reading of Maggie Workman's letter about the storm

An Interview with Clara Barton about the Sea Islands Hurricane


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