History as an abstract idea is untouchable, but sometimes, there’s only so much that can be done to protect its physical characteristics. Consider October 2016. Hurricane Matthew arrived in the Coastal Empire, and while folks and families fled, Fort Pulaski National Monument withstood the storm. Today the fort still stands tall and strong, but it wasn’t as simple as just reopening the fort to guests once the ground dried.
Hurricane Matthew Moves In
The hurricane brought strong winds with speeds nearing 100 mph, which lashed at the fort and the surrounding vegetation, bringing at least 300 trees down, scattering debris all across the island. The storm surge was recorded at almost eight feet, according to NOAA/National Ocean Service data, and the fort set a new record tide level of 12.5 feet above the normal low tide, beating the previous record set by Hurricane David in 1979. The flooding caused one of the vehicle-grade moats to float away, lifted the wooden floors out of place inside the fort, allowed mud and debris to seep into fort offices and museum rooms and saturated the beloved fig tree with salt water.
“This is certainly the worst hurricane since the 19th century,” Joel Cadoff, public information officer and acting chief of interpretation and education at Fort Pulaski, explained. “That’s the kind of scary specter of all of this, this area of the coast is lucky for so long. All we have to do is go back just over 100 years and you have a number of major storms that impacted the area. It’s happened before. Hopefully it doesn’t happen again.”
Fort Pulaski, the third fort on Cockspur Island, has withstood 10 major storms which swept through and impacted the area throughout the 19th century, including the 1881 hurricane, which destroyed the nearby village of buildings which once stood in the forest, and also the 1893 Sea Islands Hurricane, which put five feet of water inside the fort. Although, an even worse hurricane hit the island before Fort Pulaski was built. When the 1804 Antigua–Charleston Hurricane swept through, it demolished almost all record of the Fort Greene, which was built in 1795 after the Patriots destroyed the first fort, Fort George, during the Revolutionary War.
This time Cockspur Island and the fort emerged with substantial water damage. When the rain stopped and the sun emerged the Sunday following Matthew’s rage, the fort was full of water and debris. The brick walls now housed a super moat from the storm surge’s flooding and the remains of trees littered fort grounds, blocking pathways, trails and recovery efforts.
The Superheroes Show Up
In the days and weeks after Matthew swept through, the fort’s cleanup crews rallied to swiftly but carefully tend to its flood damage. The big question posed was a unanimous “now what?” Those who answered that challenge—some of the superheroes in this saga—were members of the Eastern Incident Management Team. Deployed by the National Park Service, they arrived on the scene less than 24 hours after the storm’s impact, ready to take on Matthew’s aftermath. Their first task? Sending in four assessment teams of six individuals to all affected areas on fort grounds.
Made up of individuals working at parks and forts all across the north and south eastern United States, the Eastern Incident Management Team entered the picture with assessment teams and resource advisors, including historic architects and curators who visit to make sure the museum’s objects, artifacts and cannons are safe. Thankfully, the majority of Fort Pulaski’s collection was moved to higher grounds at Fort Frederica before Matthew, though a few objects remained in the museum. They did not have to worry about several of their historic archives, as they were already being stored at the Georgia Historical Society in Downtown Savannah.
“Literally just a week before, we had relocated all of those collections to Fort Frederica on St. Simons to a higher facility that’s more controlled. There’s still some cannon balls up on higher shelves but those weren’t really affected by the water,” Melissa Memory, the superintendent at Fort Pulaski, explained. “We’re really lucky.”
Luck seems to be the fort’s unofficial recovery buzzword. Prior to the November 4th announcement regarding reopening, Cadoff said his team’s top priority was the safety and preservation of the fort as well as the safety of its visitors.
“We’ll actually be able to see some spots where the storm surge from Matthew, there was a good four, above four feet to go,” Cadoff said. “But we certainly got lucky out here.”
This time around, an incredible pre-planning effort was enforced, preventing a much worse outcome for the fort and its grounds.
“We can’t overstate the importance of Fort Pulaski getting the collection out of here in advance of the storm,” Michael Litterst, public affairs officer with National Park Service and part of the Eastern Incident Management Team, said. “We’ve done a lot of these storms. Hurricane Isabel flooded the collection of Jamestown and there were over a million objects, several million dollars to curate, after the fact, and clean.”
Fort Pulaski Pulls Through & Reopens
Fort Pulaski has now reopened and is operating with their normal 9 a.m.-5 p.m. hours, with guided tours led by fort rangers at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m., marking a return to “business as usual” after nearly a month of cleanup. At this time, all special event programming at the fort is cancelled through the end of November. This includes Centennial Series activities, the Veteran’s Day living history weekend and the post-Thanksgiving Field Day. The dates for the popular Candle Lantern Tours in December will be determined in the coming weeks.
Most trails on Cockspur Island are now open with the exception of the Lighthouse Trail, Picnic Area Trail, Nature Trail Loop, and the National Park Service maintained portion of the McQueen Island Rails to Trails. These trails remain closed due to widespread damage. Please use caution! Visitors should stay on trails at all times and be alert for potential tripping hazards and falling tree branches or palm fronds.
There is still a lot of work to be done before Fort Pulaski National Monument will be back its “normal self.” Please help by observing all safety alerts and closures. The Cockspur Island Lighthouse tower and island are still closed to the public (including kayakers and boaters) due to preservation efforts.