U.S. Geological Survey

The William M. Bird & Co. paint company, or what was left of it, on East Bay Street after the 1886 earthquake. The restored structure is now home to Amen Street Fish and Rawbar Seafood Restaurant.

One hundred and twenty-five years ago, just a little before 10 p.m., the biggest earthquake ever to strike the East Coast hit here.

The Lowcountry's streets turned into waves. Homes were tossed from their foundations. Facades fell. A passenger train from Charleston to Columbia was tossed off the tracks.

It was Aug. 31, 1886. The epicenter was Summerville, but its shock waves reverberated up and down the coast -- similar to, but much more than, the Richmond, Va., quake earlier this month.

New Yorkers raced from theaters into the streets in panic. Inmates rioted in a Richmond jail. Others felt it as far away as Toronto, Nebraska, Cuba and Bermuda.

And Charleston would never be the same.

During the past few years, three local authors have researched and penned new histories of the 1886 earthquake.

One tabulated the most accurate death toll so far on the lives lost.

Richard N. Cote, who wrote "City of Heroes," said the area's earthquake death toll was 124 -- more than the 86 deaths recorded in the city of Charleston. Another 140 were seriously injured.

Most didn't die from injuries suffered during the earthquake itself but from the ordeal that followed.

"The vast majority of all the people who died -- two-thirds to three-quarters -- did in fact die of exposure," he said, adding that the term referred to illness caused from poor sanitation and a lack of fresh drinking water.

The earthquake's impact was compounded by its historical timing. In 1886, Charleston was at a low ebb. It suffered one of its worst fires ever only 25 years before and soon afterward withstood a 563-day siege during the Civil War. Then there was Reconstruction -- and its bloody end.

In the recent history, "Upheaval in Charleston," local historians Susan M. Williams and Stephen Hoffius tell the story of the quake in that larger context.

"You look at people's accounts, and even most the stalwart people are convinced that the city is cursed," Williams said. "They felt that every time you begin to recover you're just going to be slapped down again."

"We think of 9/11 as having happened really recently and still having a huge effect on life today," Hoffius added. "The end of Reconstruction (in 1876) was the same. They were both 10 years back."

The Lowcountry was devastated by the quake of 1886. About 70 percent of the city's brick buildings suffered damage, though most -- such as Hibernian Hall, which lost its portico -- were salvaged and repaired.

To this day, major renovations of older Lowcountry buildings, such as Charleston City Hall, the Dock Street Theatre and Grace Episcopal Church, required work to address lingering earthquake damage and to help strengthen them from future shocks.

And many downtown brick homes and warehouses still sport earthquake bolts where iron rods were inserted to reinforce them.

While the death toll was relatively low, Cote said about 40,000 of the city's 60,000 residents were living outside their homes during the days immediately after the shock. The peninsula alone saw 40 refugee camps spring up.

Hoffius said the goodwill -- like that felt after 9/11 and Hurricane Hugo -- also was felt after the 1886 earthquake, but it didn't last long.

"The first night, people were banding together. Blacks helping whites, and whites helping blacks. Blacks and whites praying together," he said. "Within the first 36 hours, all the parks were segregated because basically whites moved away from black people."

Cote said the under-appreciated story of the disaster was the city's impressive recovery -- one accomplished with no financial help from state or federal governments.

"In most books of this kind, the disaster -- the terror, the destruction of lives and property -- is the story. Not with the 1886 earthquake," he said. "The story is the most extraordinary recovery from a mass catastrophe disaster in American history."

Crucial to the recovery was a city committee that was full of experts -- one that didn't contain a single elected official and one that funneled private donations to where they were needed most, he said.

"The moral of the story is we need to prepare for the worst and hope for the best," Williams said. "We can't put earthquakes off of our worry list because they happen less often than hurricanes."

6 SOFT SPOTS

An earthquake anywhere near as strong as the one in 1886 would cause many deaths, injuries and a swath of destruction. The months and years that follow would involve major challenges to rebuilding.

Here are a half dozen aspects of the Charleston area that make it so vulnerable.

BRIDGES AND OVERPASSES: For many Lowcountry residents, daily life involves driving across rivers, creeks and streams. Some newer bridges, such as the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, were designed to withstand an earthquake, but others -- such as the Interstate 26 overpass leading into downtown -- aren't expected to fare as well. Some areas could become isolated for a significant amount of time.

FILLED LAND: Homes, stores and roads built on filled land -- such as much of Charleston's western peninsula -- are especially at risk. That's because the soil underneath them is subject to increased ground motion and potential liquefaction, a scientific name for what happens when an earthquake turns land into jello.

OLDER BRICK BUILDINGS: Many of the area's older, solid masonry buildings -- such as churches -- have not been reinforced with steel or other material and could suffer the most damage, just as they did in 1886.

UTILITY LINES: Even if a neighborhood's buildings emerge in decent shape, its underground maze of water, sewer and gas lines might not, so residents would grapple with extended service disruptions and potential health hazards.

HOSPITALS: While the Medical University of South Carolina's new hospital tower was designed to withstand earthquakes, it -- and many of the area's other largest hospitals -- were built on filled land and are more likely to experience problems.

PORTS: The Lowcountry's ports were built partly on filled land and on piers over the water. They could suffer extensive damage that would put a drag on the area's economic recovery.

HOW TO PREPARE

Unlike hurricanes, which forecasters often track for days before they hit land, earthquakes can strike suddenly, with no warning.

Keep in mind that most standard homeowner's policies don't offer protection against earthquakes. Check with your agent if you're interested in this coverage.

The Charleston County Emergency Management Department advises residents to be ready to fend for themselves -- taking care of your food, water, medicine and other needs -- for 72 hours or longer after any disaster.

Here is a list of four simple steps you can take to prepare:

1) Get a kit of emergency supplies.

2) Make a plan of what you will do.

3) Be informed about what might happen.

4) Get involved in preparing your community.

For more detailed information, visit the division's website: www.charlestoncounty.org/departments/epd/ emergency/index.htm

During an earthquake

The Federal Emergency Management Agency advises people in buildings to stay there, preferably under a sturdy piece of furniture and away from glass or anything that could fall on them.

If outdoors, stay there and as far away from buildings as possible.

If driving, stop as quickly as safety allows, but don't stop near or under trees, overpasses, buildings or utility lines. After the quake, avoid roads, bridges or ramps.

If trapped in rubble, don't light a match or move about and kick up dust. Tap on a pipe or wall instead of shouting, which can lead you to inhale too much dust.

LEARN MORE

At least three exhibits relating to the 1886 earthquake are planned this year:

--"Faults and Fractures: The Medical Response to the 1886 Charleston Earthquake" opened this week runs until Oct. 31 on the third floor the Medical University of South Carolina's main library. An online version can be found at waring.library.musc.edu/exhibits/Earthquake/.

--The College of Charleston's exhibit features images, poetry, and prose about the earthquake, as well as manuscript materials. It has opened in the college's Marlene and Nathan Addlestone Library and will continue through the fall. Many of its images can be found at lowcountrydigital.library.cofc.edu.

--"The Great Charleston Earthquake, 1886" exhibit shows the quake's effects on communities across the country --and how people coped with aftershocks and rebuilt. It will open Oct. 8 at the S.C. State Museum in Columbia and then will travel to other locations.

THEN AND NOW

One reason the Lowcountry may be more vulnerable to earthquakes today than in 1886 is because its population has grown five-fold since then. The tri-county area gained more residents between 2000 and 2010 than it had total in 1886.

Area 1880 pop. 2010 pop.

Summerville 1,371 43,392

City of Charleston 49,994 120,083

Mount Pleasant 783 67,843

Charleston County 102,800 350,209

Tri-county area 105,458 664,607

Note: The 1880 Census areas were somewhat different than today's municipal and county lines, so the comparison is close but not exact.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.