Top Ten Charleston Hurricanes

A 1989 satellite view of Hurricane Hugo

A 1989 satellite view of Hurricane Hugo

It’s mid-September in the Lowcountry, and historically that means we’ve reached the peak of Hurricane Season. Over the past few centuries of recorded history, the worst of these tropical cyclones have visited the Charleston area during the second half of September and the early days of October. The weather might be turning slightly cooler here, but the Atlantic waters that fuel hurricane development are still sufficiently warm to generate storms of awesome proportions. Consider, for example, the legendary Hurricane Hugo, a Category 5 storm that sheared across Charleston County twenty-five years ago come September 21st.  Those of us who witnessed Hugo’s destruction will never forget that experience, and hope never to see such a storm again!

Hugo certainly wasn’t the first storm to cause massive damage to Charleston, however. A search through various historical documents suggests as many as twenty to thirty storms have left a significant impact on this area since the first Europeans settlers began keeping records here. So which of these was the most destructive? At the risk of sounding elusive, here’s my best answer: we simply don’t have sufficient data to compare historic storms on the modern Saffir–Simpson hurricane scale, so it’s impossible to rank the respective strengths of these storms. Contemporary reports tell us that the hurricane of 1752 was pretty awful, for example, but we lack any objective, quantifiable data to facilitate a measurable comparison with the lethal “Sea Islands” hurricane of 1893, or Hurricane Gracie in 1959.

Rather than ranking these storms by intensity, however, we can still make a poll of the worst of the worst. In other words, we can create a chronological list of the “worst” hurricanes to visit Charleston by using contemporary descriptions of the storms as a guide to their strength. For example, the Charleston newspapers of September 1800 reported the visit of a horrible storm that caused great damage, but four years later, in September 1804, the same newspapers tell us that a recent hurricane was much worse than the 1800 storm. In this manner we can whittle our list of twenty to thirty severe hurricanes down to an arbitrary number, say ten, and create a list of the “Ten Worst Hurricanes in Charleston History.” Want to know which storms made my list? Then I invite you to join me for a new program next week titled:

“Ten Worst Hurricanes in Charleston History”

Time: Wednesday September 17th 2014 at 6 p.m.

Place: 2nd Floor Classroom, Charleston County Public Library , 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.


Time: Saturday, September 20th 2014 at Noon.

Place: Edgar Allan Poe Library, 1921 I’On Avenue, Sullivan’s Island, SC 29482.

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at] or 843–805–6968.