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NWS Charleston, SC - 1938 Charleston Area Tornadoes
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.

Fatalities: 32
Injuries: 100
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).
    Map of damage tracks

  • Surface weather map from 730 a.m. 29 Sep. 1938 depicting a tropical depression just off the Charleston, S.C. coast. Credit NOAA.
    Surface chart

  • Rescue crews search through the rubble of the City Market while many locals look on. Photographer unknown; digitally enhanced by Jonathan Lamb. Credit NOAA.
    Damage at the City Market

  • 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.
    Panoramic picture

    Event summary: Jonathan Lamb
    Web design: Robert Bright

  • National Weather Service
    Charleston Weather Forecast Office
    5777 South Aviation Avenue
    Charleston, S.C. 29406-6162
    (843) 744-0303

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    Page last modified: December 3, 2007
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