- Lowcountry Hurricanes: Three Centuries of Storms at Sea and Ashore by Walter J. Fraser, Jr.
We live in a time when good books about hurricanes may be more useful than ever. At every turn there are new prognostications about how future hurricane frequency and intensity may be driven by the warming climate. Because the best predictive models take into account the best available historical data there is a new urgency to compile long weather records from documentary sources.
In this book, Walter Fraser has given us a thorough and useful chronicle of tropical storms recorded along the Atlantic, “Low-country” coast of Georgia and South Carolina since the latter decades of the seventeenth century. Any such compilation is of value to researchers seeking to evaluate long-term trends in storm frequency and intensity, but this one provides a record for a stretch of regional coastline that historically has been the focus of few such presentations. It is a contribution to the literature that fills a gap in the Southeast’s historical climate record, filling in our knowledge after other authors have focused on the more disaster-prone locales like south Florida and North Carolina’s s Outer Banks. The Georgia Bight, by virtue of its physical configuration, avoids the frequency of direct hits associated with other sections of the Atlantic coast but it is far from immune to significant impacts from coastal storms.
The book opens with a short preface that situates the study area in space and time, and offers uniformed readers with some basics of a hurricane’s life cycle and contemporary measures of intensity. In nine subsequent chapters, Fraser offers narrative descriptions of no less than 84 storms in a classical historical style. Individual chapters are constructed around perceived cycles of especially high storm activity or according to logical subdivisions dictated by vagaries of the available documentation. The first chapter begins with an account of the Spanish Repulse Hurricane of 1686, and the final one concludes with a summary of events surrounding recent hurricanes like Floyd in 1999 and Charley in 2004. The brief concluding chapter includes some of the author’s reflections on the place of storms, and weather in general, in the region’s history, as well as the admonition to take this past into account as plans are laid for management of the coastal zone.
Serious researchers will appreciate two strong features of the book. One is an exhaustive tabulation in and appendix of all of the storms the author has documented. Organized chronologically, the table presents information on the location of observations, estimates of intensity, wind speed and storm surge where feasible, and notes about damages. In addition, the narrative is exceedingly well supported by notes and bibliographic references.
Lowcountry Hurricanes is also just a plain old good read and will have appeal to anyone interested in the fascinating place of weather and climate in the region’s [End Page 372] cultural history. Each chapter is thick with fascinating anecdotes illustrating the natural power and very real implications of severe tropical storm events. In numerous instances the presentation is illuminated with engaging—and often graphic—personal accounts drawn from newspapers, plantation journals, and private correspondence.
If the book comes up short in any respect it is in the depth of its analysis. It is not a source of precise storm track reconstructions, meteorological analysis, formal intensity measures, or systematic analysis of social and economic implications. But since Fraser is an historian he cannot be expected to engage in intensive scientific analysis and, in fact, should be respected for limiting the presentation to what he does very well—presenting historical narrative. It is left to specialists to apply themselves to the impressive body of first-line historical information in this book, for which it lends itself exceedingly well. [End Page 373]