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Residents had no warning before five storms devastated the Lowcountry

Residents had no warning before five storms devastated the Lowcountry
September 2020

The tornadoes tore through Charleston in September 1938

In Charleston, September is the month for storms. There are the anxious days filled with dread and anticipation, watching and waiting, debating about whether to evacuate. Yet as destructive as hurricanes can be, they come with warnings. But on September 29, 1938, Charlestonians had no time to prepare as a series of tornadoes devastated the city.

The first of five twisters hit just before 8 a.m. in the vicinity of the Ashley River Bridge. Another skipped from James Island to the Battery, pulling up oaks in White Point Garden, careening across the Four Corners of Law, and ripping roofs from City Hall, the Charleston County Courthouse, and St. Michael’s Church, before blowing out sheds in the busy City Market. Less than half an hour later, another tornado destroyed homes on Sullivan’s Island, and two more went farther afield in the Lowcountry.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent troops to help maintain order in the impassable streets and neighborhoods left in chaos, without power and telephone service. The FI and F2 storms on the Fujita scale killed 32 people, including whole families, injured scores, and destroyed nearly 200 buildings. In today’s figures, the damage done in that few seconds cost more than $30 million.

Those storms, unanticipated and unnamed, left deep scars on the landscape for years. Though little evidence remains, they were never forgotten by those who lived through them.