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Where hurricanes strike on the Atlantic Coast

Where hurricanes strike on the Atlantic Coast


The oldest man-made structures in North America, older than anything in Mexico, can be found on the South Atlantic Coast between Port Royal Sound, SC and St. Marys Sound, GA.   This was also the only location on the Atlantic Coast in 1500 AD where there were dense indigenous populations with advanced cultures.

In 1524, Italian explorer, Giovanni da Verrazzano, gave Vinyah (now Winyah) Bay, SC its name.  It is the Scandinavian root word for Vinland.  He strangely named two towns on the Georgia or southern South Carolina Coast . . . Norman Villa and Long Villa.   Norman Villa means Norse Town in Italian, while Long Villa (Town) was a specific type of Viking coastal trading port. Long is not an Italian or Spanish word. Two years later, the first attempt to establish a Spanish colony in North America was on an island in the mouth of the Altamaha River in Georgia.

In 1939,  Smithsonian Institute archaeologist, James Ford, unearthed ancient bronze and iron weapons and tools on the banks of the Altamaha River, not too far from the site of the first attempted Spanish colony.   Many Georgia researchers are now convinced that the real location of Fort Caroline is very close to where Ford worked.

So what has been the attraction by mankind to the region between Port Royal Sound and St. Marys Sound for the past 6,000 years?

In 2007 and 2008 then again during 2013, 2014 and 2015,  I was heavily involved with historical and architectural research on the South Atlantic Coast.   The more I studied the region, the more I was astounded by the region’s extremely ancient and dense archaeological record.  The region is rich in seafood sources, but there are no readily available minerals.  The winters are mild, but the summers, a few miles inland, are almost as hot as the Gulf Coast.   The region around the mouths of the Savannah and Altamaha Rivers are the only locations where corn and members of the squash family will thrive on the South Atlantic Coast.   However,  large man-made structures began popping up in the region 4,500 years before corn was grown there.

Although researchers in the Midwest and Southwest are puzzled and probably envious that Georgia has such a dense concentration of irrefutable evidence of visitors from Bronze Age Europe and Mesoamerica . . . this mystery can be easily explained.  The state contained large deposits of valuable minerals such as attapulgite, gold, copper, natural brass, mica and gemstones.  However, these minerals are within the interior and could have only been accessed by paddling up the Savannah, Altamaha and Chattahoochee Rivers.   That would not explain large mounds and towns being built near the Atlantic Ocean.

I remembered that the US Navy chose a location near Cumberland Island, GA for its Kings Bay Nuclear Submarine Base because St. Andrews Sound is one of the deepest natural ports in North America and the location was thought to be almost immune to direct strikes by Class 4 and 5 hurricanes.   Out of curiosity (no one was paying me) I accessed the online records of the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, NC.  

There was a big surprise.   New York City, Long Island and Cape Cod are far more likely to receive a direct hit by a major hurricane than the area around Kings Bay, Brunswick and Darien, GA.  Hurricanes that strike the Atlantic Coast of Florida will often ride the coast line as far north as St. Augustine and Jacksonville then veer northeastward then veer again northward to strike Charleston, Georgetown, Wilimington and Cape Hatteras.  In fact, the two most dangerous places to live on the Atlantic Coast are the southeastern tip of Florida and Cape Hatteras, NC. However,  typically when hurricanes strike the southeast coast of Florida then veer northward their strength depreciates considerably before hitting Jacksonville.

Savannah often feels the edges of hurricanes passing up the Atlantic Coast, but the city has never received catastrophic damage from a hurricane.   Even when in 1979,  Hurricane David passed right over Savannah, its winds suddenly weakened and did little damage.  Yet farther north, Hurricane David did catastrophic damage to the Carolinas and Middle Atlantic states, mainly from flooding.  A similar phenomenon occurred in 1996, with Hurricane Fran.  Over $2.4 billion of damage was done in North Carolina, $350 million in Virginia, $80 million in Pennsylvania, $48 million in South Carolina, but none in Georgia!

It appears that the large volume of fresh water coming out of the St. Johns, St. Marys, Satilla, Altamaha, Ogeechee and Savannah Rivers interact with the Gulf Stream to act as a barrier to hurricanes making land fall between Jacksonville and Port Royal Sound, SC.  The only hurricanes to directly strike the Georgia Coast began immediately west of the Cape Verde Islands then traveled directly toward Georgia without passing over any major islands in the Caribbean Basin.

And now the bad news

There have been a few major hurricanes over the past 250 years that did catastrophic damage to the zone generally free of such horrors.  In each case that St. Augustine, Jacksonville, Brunswick, Darien, Savannah or Beaufort experienced major hurricane winds and damage, the hurricane originated immediately west of the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa.  The storm then traveled on a path across the Atlantic, which bypassed the major islands in the Caribbean Basin.   It then crossed the Gulf Stream perpendicularly next to one of those cities and continued westward into the heart of the Southeast.   The cities in Georgia were always protected by coastal islands, but the islands themselves were devastated.   Neither Jacksonville or Charleston have barrier islands protecting the mouths of their harbors. They were far more affected by tidal surges.

At this very moment, there is a major hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean, whose origin and path match those that devastated some location in the South Atlantic Coast in the past.  It is Hurricane Irma.  The next week will determine if its name will be remembered for many years like Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey or if it at the last minute changes course and meanders across the North Atlantic.

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Hey Richard,
    Very interesting article. I have family in south Florida on the Atlantic side, and even though they are 2 miles from the beach they do not need storm surge insurance. There is a steep drop off underwater. The cliff kills any storm surge. When we went fishing the water was about 400 feet deep a mile off shore.
    When they lived in the Tampa area their house was further from the coast but because of the topography.
    There they need to have flood and storm surge insurance. The good thing about the north Georgia area is the big storms that come from the south have a lot of ground to cover to get here so they weaken some.
    Have a great labor day!

    • It looks like some folks in NOAA know the same thing I do about hurricanes that start near the Cape Verde Islands. There is a high probability that Irma will do more damage than Harvey. I hope not, but I can tell that they are very worried.


    Another great article. Savannah/Tybee Island had a brush with a cat 2 last fall when Hurricane Mathew hit farther up the coast around McClellanville, SC. We had 18 inches of water mid-island, and there was hardly a cedar tree spared islandwide. You are correct in that this little enclave between Jacksonville and Charleston has traditionally been spared the brunt of most larger storms. Praying this gracious situation continues, as we ARE one of those protective barrier islands you mention above. We’ll see.

    All the best!

    • I will beating my drums for you. However, I have a bad feeling that the folks better clear off Cape Hatteras. We will know more about the hurricane’s probable path in a few days.


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