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DEER PARK HISTORY: 1959 HURRICANE

I was a young teenager at the time, but the fall of 1959 made an impression that I remember well.

Hurricane Gracie was first noted as an area of bad weather over the ocean on September 18, and became a tropical depression on September 20. It was named on September 22, just hours before reaching hurricane strength. Its highest wind speeds recorded were about 140 mph, and the lowest pressure about 950 mbar.

When seven days later Gracie made landfall south of Edisto Island, over St. Helena Sound, she was a Category 3 storm at about 120 mph. This put Charleston County on the normally more dangerous northeast side of the storm, where Gracie’s hurricane-force winds extended 100 miles out from the eye, and gale-force winds 200 miles out. While aircraft evacuated, and naval vessels went upriver, there were eight merchant ships caught in the harbor.

A Submarine Electrician's Mate who was stationed on the USS Sea Owl SS405 later described what the eye of Hurricane Gracie looked like at sea: “It was as though we were in a huge soup bowl 20 miles in diameter. We were in the 20 mile flat part of the Ocean with extremely smooth water, as smooth as a still lake, and all around the 20 mile diameter was a rim of water 50 feet high. In the 20 mile eye, the sky was perfectly blue, but extending all the way up above the 50 foot water wall was the swirling black cloud which you could not see through.”

Gracie’s movements over the ocean had been erratic and hard to predict. We had little advance notice, giving people little time to evacuate even if they wanted to. On September 27, the News and Courier reported that Gracie’s “threat to the U.S. mainland was fading fast” as she was “expected to continue moving away.” On Monday the 28th, the morning paper referred to Gracie as “one of the pokiest hurricanes in recent years.”

But about 1p.m on Monday, a Hurricane Watch was issued from Savannah to Wilmington, and then upgraded in about three more hours to a Warning. That night, I wrote in my diary, “Gracie is supposed to be here tomorrow about noon. She’s really a big, mean one they say. And headed right for Charleston! Maybe it’s just another warning, with nothing more than rain, like so many others have been. I hope. But there’s enough threat so school’s out tomorrow.” Tuesday morning the News and Courier’s headline story began, “A howling hurricane named Gracie is expected to hit the Charleston-Savannah coastal area between daylight and noon today, packing winds of severe intensity . . . .”

The newspaper later reported Gracie’s time of arrival as 11:25 Tuesday morning. Despite it being dead low tide, the winds were so strong at Charleston, and drove the water in so, that the tide was the highest recorded since 1940.

Despite being repeatedly warned to stay away from the picture windows in the front of the house, I sneaked into the living room to watch the storm. An especially tall pine at the front corner of the yard was twisting slowly round and round, gradually breaking up the ground. It reminded me of the way I pulled up onions or carrots by first turning them to loosen them. Then the entire tree lifted straight up into the air, roots and all, and for a tiny moment hung there completely free of the ground before falling with an enormous crash.

My mother had insisted two years earlier that my father leave the back yard full of pines when he built the house. After the storm, the trees were almost all gone, broken or fallen over or pulled up. Juanita Stephens, then Thompson, says that all 19 trees in their yard fell. Though only a child at the time, Gail Thompson remembers the trees lying all around her house, which had been surrounded by thick woods.

The electrical wires fallen along the streets were hot and sparking, making it risky to check on family and neighbors, but people did it anyway.

That night in bed I used a flashlight to record in my diary, “It was no warning this time! It’s been awful. Seven pines in our yard came up by the roots. No lights, no water, no TV. or radio and we can’t call on the phone. Others can call us.” Southern Bell later estimated that twenty thousand phones were put out of order in the state, most of them in the Charleston area.

Deer Park had no city water at the time, and the weather was hot that week. My father had planned our then two-year-old house with the well water drawn up by electricity directly into the kitchen faucets. Technology showed its limitations when we found we had no way to get to the water with the power off. The Mitchums and the Chapmans were among those who hooked up hand pumps within a day or two, while the Bowers family was able immediately to draw their water with a bucket. Despite 3.8 inches of rain, as measured at the airport, Deer Park didn’t suffer too much from flooding. In those days, our neighborhood was still full of wetlands. The early houses were carefully sited to take advantage of natural rises that drained into the swampy areas. The houses also were primarily one-story, built close to the ground to shelter from the wind.

Down on Reynolds Avenue, a couple of National Guardsmen watched over one of my family’s favorite shopping places, Edwards 5c 10c $1 store. But Baldwin Brothers (parts and motorcycles) on Spruill wasn’t so lucky. Part of the damaged store collapsed into the roadway. Before police could arrive to move the concrete blocks and steel girders out of the street, looters entered and stole some of the parts.

On the evening of Wednesday the 30th, Deer Park Baptist Church had its prayer meeting as usual, but by candlelight. Among the many families represented there that night giving thanks for our safety were Bowers, Brown, Slaughter, Furr, Chapman, Long, and Thompson.

We were fortunate to have a gas stove, while those with electrical stoves of course couldn’t cook. But people found ways to manage. The Chapmans set up grills on their front lawn and for long hours they worked at cooking the 250 pounds of beef that had been in their freezer. They gave away plates of the delicious hot food to anyone who came by. I remember the whole street smelling like a restaurant.

Southern Ice Company reported doing a record business on Wednesday. Juanita Stevens remembers waiting in line several times only to discover the ice had run out just before she got to the head of the line. North Charleston High School, with its city water and its classrooms with lots of natural light, re-opened, and students who had no water at home were allowed to start the day with a cold shower: it was wonderful! I felt sorry for the younger children who couldn’t go back to their school because the rooms were too dark.

Thursday, October 1, the News and Courier reported an interview with officials from S.C. Electric and Gas: “An aerial survey of lines south of Charleston revealed extreme damage to power lines near St. George, Summerville, Yemassee, Beaufort and Walterboro. It will be one to three weeks before power can be restored fully to those areas. Approximately 65 high voltage structures are down, and many trees have fallen on lines. Five major transmission lines are down.” On Saturday, October 3, our street got electricity, but not everyone was so lucky. Emma Baker on Ladson Road recalls going 13 days without power.

Before Gracie dissipated in New Jersey on September 30, it was responsible for 22 deaths, 10 of them in Georgia and South Carolina, and caused $4 million in damages (in 2009 dollars, that’s $104 million). More than half of that damage was in Charleston County. The storm isn’t on the official list of retired names, but “Gracie” hasn’t been used again.

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