1938 Charleston Area Tornadoes
Five tornadoes raked the South Carolina Lowcountry on the morning of 29 September 1938.
They were likely spawned by a tropical depression that formed in the Gulf of Mexico on
the 27th and moved up the southeast U.S. coast on the 29th. Three of the tornadoes
ravaged parts of James Island, downtown Charleston, and Sullivan's Island, while the
other two twisters struck outlying areas. Exacerbating the problems were higher than
normal tides and heavy rains overnight, resulting in significant street flooding. The
low pressure system then moved up the East Coast, dumping 9.4 inches of rain in
Wilmington, N.C., flooding most of the city, then brought strong winds and heavy rain
to the Northeast. Two of the tornadoes were ranked F2 while three were F1.
Damages: ≈ $2 million ($30 million inflation-adjusted)
Buildings destroyed: 196
Buildings damaged: ≈ 100
Chronology of Events
0750 AM EDT: F2 tornado moved from near Seabrook Island NNE across the Ashley River onto
the Charleston peninsula near the Ashley River bridge. It affected the upper section of the
city, destroying most poorly constructed houses in the "Fiddler's Green" section. Five fatalities
and 20 injuries resulted.
0800 AM EDT: Another F2 tornado formed near James Island, crossed the Harbor, then hit the
peninsula just west of the Fort Sumter Hotel on The Battery. It moved across the southeast
portion of Charleston, causing the most damage on Market and Broad Streets, then exited near
the intersection of Calhoun St. and East Bay St. 27 fatalities and 80 injuries were attributed,
mainly from collapsing buildings. The tornado passed just west of the U.S. Customs House at 0810 AM,
home to the U.S. Weather Bureau.
0830 AM EDT: F1 twister strikes Sullivan's Island from Stations 26 1/2 to 28. 15 homes destroyed with
many others damaged. No serious injuries or deaths due to most homes being vacant after the summer tourist season.
Early Tornado Detection
Severe weather detection was very different in the 1930s. Weather radar was not developed until the 1950s,
while the first weather satellite was not launched until 1959. Therefore, meteorologists of the day had only
a barometer to monitor for atmospheric pressure falls, and an anemometer and wind vane to measure wind speed
and direction. In the 1930s, the U.S. Weather Bureau office was located in the Customs House in downtown
Charleston. During the first tornado that struck the northern portion of the city, nothing unusual was detected.
However, the second twister moved very near the Customs House, with the Weather Bureau reporting a pressure drop
from 29.73" Hg to 29.30" Hg when it passed, as well as a wind gust to 72 mph.
(Note: Click on each photo for a larger view)
Tracks of the two tornadoes that struck downtown Charleston. Damaged or destroyed buildings are noted in solid-black.
Analysis by the Charleston Evening Post (now The Post & Courier).
Surface weather map from 730 a.m. 29 Sep. 1938 depicting a tropical depression just off the Charleston, S.C. coast. Credit NOAA.
Rescue crews search through the rubble of the City Market while many locals look on. Photographer unknown; digitally enhanced by
Jonathan Lamb. Credit NOAA.
Composite of six images taken from the roof of the Customs House at 10:30 a.m. Photographer unknown; digitally enhanced by Jonathan
Lamb. Credit NOAA.
Event summary: Jonathan Lamb
Web design: Robert Bright