For 120 years, the American Red Cross has been providing relief for disaster victims in the path of devastating hurricanes. In August 1893, the Red Cross came to the aid of a community in the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, organizing the first Red Cross hurricane response effort.
At that time, the Sea Islands were a largely African American population, known for their farms that produced the long silky Sea Island cotton. Without the aid of modern warning systems, the islanders had little notice and no time to prepare when the storm shifted course and struck overnight.
The Sea Islands Hurricane delivered a destructive blow to southern communities and coastlines, leaving approximately 2,000 people dead and 20,000 to 30,000 people homeless. Damage was estimated at about $1 million with the storm washing crops, livestock, homes and hundreds of victims out to sea.
According to the NOAA website, a Category 3 storm made landfall on August 27 near Savannah, Ga. Pieced together from the few existing meteorological records, the storm surge was approximately 16 feet, causing massive damage along the coastline, destroying most of the barrier islands structures, and ruining the crops that were nearing harvest.
The hurricane then moved through Beaufort and Charleston, S.C. continuing its destructive path. With so much devastation inland, it was initially thought that no one survived on the barrier islands; but as news filtered in, the extent of the damage and plight of the surviving inhabitants became clear.
Government officials requested the Red Cross inspect and provide whatever aid they could. Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross and organization leader at that time, was concerned that the Red Cross could not provide ample resources to help survivors because of the overwhelming size of the relief effort, but the 72-year-old Barton was not one to turn away pleas for help.
With limited funds, the Red Cross helped storm victims recover and rebuild their lives. Barton decided food was the most important priority and from meager Red Cross rations, supplied each family a peck of corn and a pound of bacon per week.
“From the beginning it had been evident this would be a prolonged work, for it was necessary to provide for the people until their next crop could be harvested, nearly a year later,” as noted in Clara Barton: Professional Angel by Elizabeth Brown Pryor, published in 1987.
In addition to food, for nearly a year, the Red Cross administered medical aid, tools, seeds, and housing materials along with a planting rehabilitation project that helped sustain the islanders.
Barton stayed in the Sea Islands until the summer of 1894 and the remaining Red Cross staff left just before the cotton harvest in early autumn. When the relief effort was over, fields of Sea Island cotton had been reestablished and homes, schools and churches rebuilt.
Learn more about Red Cross history.