Tornado watches and warnings have become a commonplace occurrence today. Forecasters using Doppler radar and other modern technology track potential twisters and other hazardous weather conditions.
But on March 20, 1875, with very little advance notice, the barometric pressure suddenly dropped, helping to unleash a massive tornado in one of Columbia County's worst natural disasters.
The tornado had no respect for anything in its half-mile-wide path as it hop-scotched across the newly established McDuffie County line and through Columbia County, eventually reaching the Savannah River at Furys Ferry before entering South Carolina.
The series of severe storms was part of an intense weather system wreaking havoc not only here but in other parts of Georgia. Areas of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisianna also were hit.
It was said that the black cylindrical cloud from a distance resembled a huge column of smoke rising from the surrounding forests. The fierce outburst of nature was illuminated with lurid light, and made matchsticks of everything in its path.
Skies were overcast. No rain fell when the storm first hit, but a short time later rain deluged the area, accompanied by hail, lightning and thunder. Hundreds escaped injury, but others were not so lucky. Witnesses said the appalling noise that accompanied the tornado was like cannon fire on a battlefield.
Throughout Columbia County, houses were demolished and some people in prosperous circumstances on that Saturday morning were almost destitute that night. A great number were homeless, and many were injured. The death toll was never accurately determined.
Children had grains of sand embedded in their skin from the force of the winds. Wagons were flung about like toys. Flying debris killed horses tied to hitching posts.
People told of huge trees being uprooted and tossed great distances. Entire groves of pines were denuded, and the feathers of chickens on nearby farms were blown away. For months afterward the storm was the main topic of conversation in desolated rural communities.
Throughout the county, cemetery markers of those who died in the tornado bear the date of the twister and attest to its deadly ferocity. Other graves remain unmarked.
The county seat of Appling was in direct line of the rampage. Here, private dwellings, churches, inns, schools and public buildings were either destroyed or sustained considerable damage. Metal rods remain in the upstairs framework of the courthouse, giving support to the building and serving as a reminder of the damage inflicted on that gloomy day.
Old newspaper articles report one end of the courthouse was blown away, along with the roof, necessitating extensive repairs. Court functions scheduled for the March term had to be postponed.
Some residents sought refuge in the county jail in Appling. The sturdy building, constructed in 1850, proved to be a lifesaver. The cornerstone of the old former building, bearing its date of construction, can still be seen near the clerk of court's office.
In the aftermath of the storm, appeals for help went out for the many displaced families. The county was still trying to recover from the effects of the Civil War and Reconstructions when the tornado arrived. Plantations had given way to a system of sharecropping and tenant farming.
Relief soon arrived through the generosity of friends in Augusta, whose markets depended on cotton and other goods from Columbia County farms.
The Georgia Railroad carried relief supplies and funds from Augusta to Harlem free of charge. The goods were then conveyed to Appling for County Ordinary D.C. Moore to distribute.
Now, more than a century later, county leaders and officials are ever-mindful that a tornado can swoop down from the heavens like a bird of prey and, with terrifying quickness, destroy everything in its path.
The Columbia County Emergency Services Division is always on alert for these unforeseen catastrophes. Only through proper planning can loss of life be averted in a crisis of this magnitude - as history often has a way of repeating itself.
Charles Lord is a Columbia County historian.
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