Weather, history experts reflect on deadly 1881 hurricane that devastated coastal Ga.

WSAV Hurricane Central

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — While the Coastal Empire and Lowcountry dodged significant impacts from Isaias, another August hurricane left a far more destructive mark on the region 139 years ago.

It was called Hurricane Five, and ranks among the top 10 deadliest storms ever to impact the United States.

The powerful Category 2 storm predated the start of officially naming storms by 69 years; the National Hurricane Center began giving them names like Irma and Andrew in 1950. 

On the night of Aug. 27, 1881, people living along the Georgia coast were awakened — with no time to evacuate — by sounds of howling wind and pounding rainfall as Hurricane Five roared toward the Savannah area.

A lack of advance warning was a key factor in the hundreds of deaths that would soon occur.

“One of the reasons why we don’t see death tolls very often that high with Category 1 or Category 2 hurricanes is because people have an opportunity to evacuate, and evacuation orders often are given within 48 hours,” said WSAV Storm Team 3 Meteorologist Kyle Dennis. “You know, that just didn’t happen back then.”

Residents were largely caught off guard because near the end of the 19th century, it was far less simple to predict hurricanes than it is today, Dennis says.

“We have computer models, we have satellites, there are so many advanced tools at our disposal,” Dennis told WSAV.com NOW. “There were no supercomputers back then, there was very limited radio, even in the 1800s.”

Dennis says while they may have been able to know that a storm was approaching, weather forecasters had no way to know the size and strength of the storm.

“Hurricanes could come out of nowhere and hit within hours of warning,” he said.

 In those days, meteorologists could observe swells on the water for clues.

“If they observed a very large swell coming in off the east or wind or cloud patterns moving in unusual directions, that would kind of tip forecasters off that something was up,” he said.

Hurricane Five took a rare track when compared with the history of previous storms, according to Dennis. 

It developed as a tropical storm near the Lesser Antilles, passed to the north of those islands and eventually grew to become a Category 1 storm after passing the Dominican Republic. 

It ramped up to Category 2 status off of Florida’s coast.

National Weather Service (NWS) reports show that it made landfall over Ossabaw Island with winds around 105 mph. 

“Winds were measured at about 80 miles per hour with an anemometer that then was destroyed,” Dennis said. “That was the highest that was recorded, but the winds are estimated to be at about 100 or so miles per hour when it made landfall.”

The barrier islands like Tybee, Jekyll and St. Simons took the hardest hit from the storm, which was nicknamed the Georgia Hurricane of 1881.

“This storm came in during high tide, so it brought the worst storm surge impacts that it could have produced,” Dennis said. 

Storm surge was another crucial factor in the historic storm’s severity.

“Even without evacuating, had the storm come in during low tide, I don’t think this storm would have been quite as deadly, because the storm surge wouldn’t have been as severe,” Dennis said. “Storm surge is one of the deadliest components to a hurricane.”

The rainy hurricane also left behind plenty of wind damage and devastated homes, businesses and crops.

It resulted in around 700 deaths before weakening into a tropical storm. 

Could a Category 2 storm be just as devastating for Savannah today?

While Hurricane Five did take an unusual track, Dennis says the fact that it happened once means it could certainly occur in the future — which is why people shouldn’t become complacent.

“We always have to remain vigilant and watch each storm very closely,” he said.

“There may be factors that prevent these kinds of tracks from happening often: the shape of the coastline, the Gulf stream; there are factors that limit our potential to take a direct hit like this, which is why it doesn’t happen often, but it did happen, which means it can happen again,” Dennis added.

He adds that such a high death toll from a Category 2 hurricane likely wouldn’t happen today, when meteorologists are able to track storms days and even weeks in advance.

“We’re constantly monitoring the storm every step of the way, so you wouldn’t see a situation where a Category 2 hurricane is suddenly making landfall and no one saw it coming,” Dennis said. 

Stan Deaton, senior historian for the Georgia Historical Society, recounts the historic and deadly Hurricane Five, including the impact it left on the lives of Savannahians. Learn more about the Georgia Hurricane of 1881 by watching the interview below.

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