Slaves’ descendants have a long history of enduring hurricanes

FILE – In this May 16, 2013, file photo, a utility pole stands in the middle of a marsh at sunset on Sapelo Island, Georgia, a Gullah-Geechee community. A close-knit community of slave descendants on the coast of South Carolina is used to the drive of large storms, a storm that killed an estimated 2,000 people in 1893 to Tropical Storm Irma of last year. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

ST. HELENA ISLAND, S. C. – As a potential disastrous Hurricane Florence steamed in the direction of the Carolinas, Josh Stage looked at the weather forecast on the television in his barbershop and listened to updates from emergency officials.

But when it comes to the decision to flee this island where thousands of black residents trace their ancestry back to West-Africans who once worked in the nearby fields, the advice of the family elders can have as much weight as those of professional meteorologists.

“As a Mom, most of the people are not going to leave,” Dais, 29, said Tuesday, recalling how he rode out Tropical Storm Irma of last year and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 with family members at his mother’s home. “As a Mom and Grandma, then a lot of people leave.”

Respect for tradition and deep cultural roots have persisted for generations on Pc. Helena Island, the largest Gullah community on the South Carolina coast. An estimated 5,000 or more people who live here are descended from the slaves who worked the rice plantations in the area before they were freed by the civil war.

Smaller enclaves of Gullah, referred to as Geechee in some areas are scattered along the Southeast coast from North Carolina to Florida. Scholars say that the separation of the mainland of the cause of the Gullah to preserve much of their African heritage, including a unique dialect, and skills such as the cast-net fishing and basket weaving.

Destructive hurricanes yet, all too often in St. Helena Island is over. But the so-called Sea Islands Hurricane of 1893 devastated the area after the rolling of the shore in Savannah, Georgia, and killed an estimated 2,000 people.

Emory Campbell, a Gullah descendant and scholar, recalled the drive as a boy in a neighbor to the old cart on Hilton Head Island as Hurricane Gracie struck in 1959 and tore the roof of a hotel.

“We saw a number of remnants of hurricanes here when I was growing up,” Campbell said. “The wind would blow, you would some tin against the window, but you wouldn’t know that much at all except for the scratchy sounds on the radio coming out of Savannah.”

Hurricane Matthew smashed and fallen trees on the surrounding Beaufort County in 2016, but largely spared from the modest ranch houses, bungalows and mobile homes of St. Helena Island.

John Brown, 54, said he spent two weeks after Matthew cutting fallen trees with a chainsaw in his work for a municipal public works department. A giant live oak uprooted by the storm and remains intact across the street from Brown’s house.

“If my work is not necessary for me to continue, I would be here in a heartbeat,” Brown said after giving fresh water to four cows, Tuesday. “I think that most of the older ones, they’re kind of cocky. But the younger, not so much.”

St. Helena residents said that people started with the filling of gas cans and buy stocks Monday when the governor ordered evacuations for the entire coast of South Carolina. Things calmed down Tuesday when the order was lifted in Beaufort County, although some of the local restaurants and the shops remained closed.

Florence track uncertain Wednesday. The National Hurricane Center said the storm will slow down as it moves in the direction of the Carolina’s and can even change direction before coming ashore.

Bertha Bradley was not disturbing. She and her husband grew up in St. Helena Island and own Bradley’s Fish, a small cinderblock store where they sell shrimp, flounder and whiting, all caught by their son.

Bradley said she has never preferred to evacuate ahead of hurricanes, in part because her great-grandmother never did. Bradley and her husband missed Gracie in 1959, because they were in the Savannah after getting married. A storm, she’s not sure what, afraid enough to get them to leave the island.

But the traffic, she said, was terrible.

“I said, ‘Why get on the road like this? I am planning to get killed on the road,'” Bradley said. “I must stay in my house, where I water and food. If God is for you, you can’t get from him.”


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