Leveling the Lowcountry: the 1938 Charleston tornadoes

Tornado | Image via Pexels

Table of Contents

Each year between the months of June + November, hurricane season looms over the City of Charleston, threatening the Lowcountry with memories of Hugo and causing residents up + down the coast to stock up on water bottles, sandbags + plywood. By now, Charlestonians are hurricane preparedness professionals. However, 82 years ago this month, a different natural disaster swept through the city – the tornado. 🌪

Overturned car from the 1938 Charleston tornadoes | Image via Historic Charleston Foundation

On the morning of Sept. 29, 1938, in the middle of hurricane season, five separate tornadoes touched down in Charleston County. That’s right: five separate tornadoes.  

The first tornado made contact around 7:50 a.m., starting on Seabrook Island and traveling across the Ashley River before slamming into the Charleston peninsula. Exactly 10 minutes later, at 8 a.m., the second tornado wreaked havoc on Market + Broad St. Before 9 a.m., yet another tornado materialized, tearing through Sullivan’s Island. Thankfully, the following two tornadoes had very little impact as they kept to rural, uninhabited areas. But the first three caused irreversible destruction.

Uprooting trees + powerlines, overturning vehicles and demolishing nearly 200 buildings, these twisters cost the city around $2 million in damages, which would be about $36 million today. Tragically, the tornadoes took the lives of 32 people + injured many more, making this one of the deadliest storms to ever hit Charleston.

Interested in learning more about this terrifying + unusual event? The Lowcountry Digital Library has an entire collection of photos dating back to that fateful day as well as numerous interviews with Charleston-natives who experienced these tornadoes.