Although Georgia has its share of damage from tropical storms, direct hits from hurricanes are pretty rare. When Hurricane Michael made landfall in Georgia in 2018, it was the first time a Category 3 or higher hurricane had directly hit the shores of Georgia since the 1800s.
What is it about the Georgia coastline that protects it from the brunt of hurricanes? Also, what are the most powerful hurricanes to ever hit Georgia? Read on to find out.
Why Do Hurricanes Rarely Hit Georgia?
The Georgia coastline is relatively small compared to other Atlantic states. Georgia has only around 100 miles of shore, making it less likely a hurricane will directly hit the state. Another factor is the shape of Georgia’s coast. The coast bends westward, naturally protecting it and making Florida and the Carolinas more likely to get the full force of Atlantic storms.
And yet, direct hits from damaging hurricanes do sometimes occur along the Georgia coast. Ranked in chronological order, here are five of the most powerful hurricanes to ever hit Georgia.
1: The Great Carolina Hurricane — September 8, 1854
The Great Carolina Hurricane occurred before hurricanes were named and before the current Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. The Saffir-Simpson rates hurricanes based on wind speeds in categories from 1 to 5, with 5 being the most intense. With its 115 miles per hour winds, today a storm of that intensity would be rated a Category 3.
The hurricane made landfall near St. Catherine’s Island, just south of Savannah, on September 8, 1854. The Atlantic coast experienced major damage. In Georgia, Hutchinson Island was submerged, rice crops were destroyed, and storm surges brought flooding to coastal areas.
- Category: 3
- Wind Speed: 115 miles per hour
- Landfall: St. Catherine’s Island, GA
2: Great Sea Island Storm — August 28, 1893
In August 1893, a large Category 3 hurricane made landfall just south of Savannah, GA. Hurricanes were still called cyclones in those days and the naming system had not yet begun. The coastal sea islands of Georgia and South Carolina took full force from the slow-moving powerful storm. Winds combined with the storm surge caused significant damage across the area.
It’s estimated that thousands of people in Georgia and South Carolina lost their lives during the hurricane. Deaths were more common in the 1800s during intense storms because officials had few ways to warn the public ahead of the storm. Forecasters mailed postcards and sent telegraph messages, but many residents didn’t know the hurricane was coming until they heard the winds and saw the flooding.
- Category: 3
- Wind Speed: 115 miles per hour
- Landfall: Savannah, GA
3: Georgia Hurricane — October 2, 1898
The most powerful hurricane to directly hit the state of Georgia, the Georgia Hurricane of 1898 caused significant flooding and property damage. Making landfall on Cumberland Island, GA as a Category 4 storm, the hurricane tracked northwest into central Georgia. Although 1898 was the year the Federal government established its first hurricane warning network, officials were not able to warn Georgians of the impending danger.
Record high storm surges were recorded, with a reported 16-foot surge in Brunswick, GA, and a 20-foot surge in Jekyll Island. At least 179 people were killed in the hurricane, rail service to Tybee Island was disrupted, and crops were damaged.
- Category: 4
- Wind Speed: 130 mph
- Landfall: Cumberland Island, GA
4: Hurricane David — September 4, 1979
The first major named hurricane to directly hit Georgia was Hurricane David in 1979. David formed off the African coast and pummeled the island of Dominica and the Dominican Republic. David was a Category 3 when it hit the coast of Florida. It then weakened to a Category 1 storm by the time it made landfall on Sapelo Island, GA.
The storm spawned tornadoes, caused significant beach erosion, and inundated the Jekyll Island Causeway and the F.J. Torras Causeway, linking Brunswick to St. Simons Island.
- Category: 1
- Wind Speed: 90 mph
- Landfall: Sapelo Island, GA
5: Hurricane Michael — October 10, 2018
Hurricane Michael was an extremely dangerous storm that made landfall near Panama City, FL on the afternoon of October 10, 2018, as a Category 5 hurricane. It was the first Category 5 hurricane to directly hit the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the fourth to hit the U.S. since 1850.
Michael tracked across the Florida panhandle, moving up to Georgia as night fell. The storm, although not as powerful as when it first hit Florida still packed a punch. Georgia experienced power outages, flooding of businesses and homes, widespread tree damage, and severe loss of crops (mainly cotton, peanuts, and pecan.)
- Category: 3
- Wind Speed: 115 mph
- Landfall: Donalsonville, GA
Other Notable Tropical Storms to Impact Georgia
Georgia may not get direct hits from many hurricanes, but it often is left to deal with the fallout of these powerful storms, such as flooding and tornadoes. Following are some of the storms that impacted Georgia, although they did not make landfall in the state.
Tropical Storm Alberto (1994)
Although Tropical Storm Alberto never strengthened into a hurricane, the system was slow moving and it stalled over Georgia. As it sat over the state, it brought nearly 25 inches of rain in under 24 hours. Over 50,000 people had to evacuate their homes due to flooding, and 400 coffins flooded out of their water-logged graves and into the streets.
Hurricane Floyd (1999)
Although Floyd did not hit Georgia directly, it caused the largest evacuation effort in American history for Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas. Somewhere around 3 million people (500,000 in Georgia) hit the highways to escape causing major traffic jams along America’s interstates. In the end, Floyd bypassed Georgia and headed north, but did bring tropical-force winds to Savannah.
Hurricane Katrina (2005)
On August 29, 2005, remnants of Hurricane Katrina moved into western Georgia, causing heavy rains, damage to houses and businesses, and spawning a record 18 tornadoes in one day. Hurricane Katrina first made landfall in Florida as a Category 1, then strengthened to a 5, as it moved into the Gulf of Mexico. When Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, the storm was a Category 3 with wind speeds of 140 miles per hour. Though Georgia was only hit by the outer bands of the storm, the tornadoes spawned from the storm caused wide damage.
Hurricane Matthew (2016)
Although Hurricane Matthew passed 50 miles off the Georgia coast, it caused significant flooding, power outages, and wind damage. Matthew was a Category 4 when it made landfall in Haiti but had weakened to Category 1 when it hit north of Georgia in South Carolina.
How Are Animals Affected by Hurricanes?
It’s not just people that are affected by hurricanes. Animals can get caught in flooding or hurricane-force winds. Also, their habitats can be altered or destroyed, affecting them long after the storm has passed.
Female sea turtles come to shore in the summer to lay eggs along Georgia beaches. Battering waves can damage nests or wash away hatchlings. When Hurricane Matthew was pummeling the coast, the Georgia Aquarium rescued 18 sea turtles that had been found abandoned, stranded, or injured on the Georgia coast. Once the storm passed, the turtles were released back onto the beaches.
Wild turkeys are abundant in Georgia. The turkeys nest in open woodlands, but when Hurricane Michael blew through the area in 2018 destroying forests, research showed the wild turkey population lost many of their nesting sites.
While downed trees can be detrimental to turkeys, they are a haven for bark beetles. Bark beetles are common in the area, but dead trees can create an abundance of insects, causing their populations to grow rapidly. Once the beetles run out of dead material to feast on, they’ll turn to live trees.
Common backyard birds of Georgia that migrate across the Gulf of Mexico may be affected during tropical storms that sweep across the Gulf. The chimney swift (nicknamed “flying cigar” for its sleek shape) spends its summers in Georgia. However, migrating flocks of chimney swifts can be blown off course by hurricane winds in the Gulf.
In 2005, Hurricane Wilma disrupted thousands of chimney swifts from reaching their winter destination. Some of the birds were blown so far off course they ended up in Western Europe. Sadly, the following year, chimney swift populations were down by 50%.
Another migrating bird, the piping plover, doesn’t nest in Georgia but can be seen stopping over for a rest during spring and fall migrations. Hurricanes can disrupt the little birds and send them off course. Even losing a day to a storm can mean the birds don’t have enough energy or fat reserves to complete their trip.
Frosted Flatwood Salamander
The frosted flatwood salamander is a rare species that used to be abundant in the coastal plains of Georgia. Today, only a few remaining habitats for the salamander remain. One of those is Fort Stewart, GA. The salamanders burrow underground during hurricanes and can be affected by flooding from storm surges. Further, the freshwater ponds they live near may be inundated with saltwater, which can be fatal for the salamander’s eggs.
Summary of the Top 5 Most Powerful Hurricanes to Ever Hit Georgia
|The Great Carolina Hurricane
|Cat 3 (115 mph)
|Sept. 8, 1854
|St. Catherine’s Island, GA
|Great Sea Island Storm
|Cat 3 (115 mph)
|Aug. 28, 1893
|Cat 4 ( 130 mph)
|Oct. 2, 1898
|Cumberland Island, GA
|Cat 1 (90 mph)
|Sept. 4, 1979
|Sapelo Island, GA
|Cat 3 (115 mph)
|Oct. 10, 2018
The photo featured at the top of this post is © stefanofiorentino/iStock via Getty Images
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