Natural disasters and history

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Hurricane Rita satellite photo from NASA

Satellite photo of Hurricane Rita on 21 September 2005 over the Gulf of Mexico, by Jacques Descloitres, offered online by NASA.

How important are meteorological events to human history? What about natural disasters in general?

Consider how many watercourses in Georgia are named Hurricane Creek (after all, a huge area with downed trees would be an obvious landmark). Consider the rebuilding of communities along the Gulf of Mexico coast after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Consider the devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami on the east coast of Japan in early 2011.

Now, consider the weather and one particular place in Georgia.

Sapelo is one of Georgia’s famous barrier islands. Barrier islands are island chains that parallel a coastline and decrease the effects on the mainland of storms that come on-shore. The islands, thus, receive the full force of the storms. Therefore, it is not surprising that William S. McFeely, in his volume Sapelo’s People: A Long Walk into Freedom (1994), would write on page 152:

Two great storms frame the Sapelo past that I have come to know, the hurricanes of 1824 and 1898. Ravaging storms are major events on the vulnerable low-slung sea islands. The pounding ocean is bass to the falsetto shriek of relentless wind. And what the wind doesn’t blow over or away can be carried off by waves, unimpeded by the four-foot-high dunes, overreaching the vast stretches of the island’s flat center. Hurricanes come often and do their damage, but near-yearly terrors are ordinary compared to those of 1824 and 1898.

Despite the chronic vulnerability of Sapelo Island to bad weather storming in from the vast Atlantic, people have chosen it as a place to live. Look at some of these images from the trip the SGA leadership took to Sapelo in February 2010 to get a sense of the place.

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You see the remains of vast rings of oyster shells, left by ancient peoples. You see the ruins of tabby buildings that anchored busy plantations. This is not the totality of the island—you see no pictures of Hog Hammock, the island’s only surviving real community.

On pages 89 and 90, author McFeely details how, following the requests of ex-slaves, General Rufus Saxton, drawing upon the success of communities on South Carolina’s barrier islands, ordered in 1865 that the barrier islands from Charleston south to Florida be set aside for settlement by ex-slaves. By 1869, however, the power of the Freedman’s Bureau had been diluted, and most former slaves on Sapelo had become laborers for white landowners.

Agronomic success remained out of reach for Sapelo’s residents after the war. Then, the 1898 hurricane destroyed homes, docks, and food-stores. People drowned, as did their farm animals.

Faced with the choice, as people do after all major disasters, of staying or going, many of Sapelo’s black residents chose to stay—after all, this was where their land was.

So, can we consider that the 1898 storm changed human history? Certainly, it changed things for Sapelo’s residents at the turn of the century. But, can we consider that it changed Georgia’s history, in the ways that the Katrina and Rita storms changed the history of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, or that the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami changed history in Japan?

So, if after a major disaster, either local or wider in scope, people can choose to say or leave. If they emigrate, where do they go? What options do refugees have? How may emigration have changed Mississippian-period history, for example? If people chose to stay, what must they do, and how does that change history?