The warnings began coming when the storm off Florida turned to head northwest.

Surviving the storm: Quotes on the 1893 hurricane

“Soon they became speechless with fear for the water was smashing into the house. Seeing parts of the house floating by and bricks from the chimneys falling thick and fast about them, the family left their place of refuge in the second story by climbing down to the window shutters below, onto the floating piazza roof and cross it to a sea cedar tree to which the servants were already clinging.

“The forty foot waves (Dr. Flagg’s estimate) soon claimed Dr. Arthur Flagg, his wife Elizabeth and Pauline Weston. Each one left, fighting his own fight and was cruelly beaten by the waves. The writer was twice knocked from the small limb to which she was clinging, but catching the tip end of it, she pulled herself back in spite of floating boards, furious seas and sand-laden winds cutting flesh like sharp pieces of glass.”

Anne W. Weston Smoak, survivor of the Magnolia Beach storm surge of the Sea Islands Hurricane, The News and Courier, 1933. Magnolia Beach is north of Pawleys Island.

“Indeed, there was more often nothing on the (sea) islands to return to. If all had been swept out to sea and nothing remained, it was described as “done gone.” But if thrown down and parts of the wreck still remained, it was described as “ractified.” A few of the churches, being larger and more strongly built, still remained standing.”

Clara Barton, American Red Cross founder, in an interview with the Beaufort Gazette, about relief efforts in the aftermath of the Sea Islands Hurricane.

“Passing from the Battery on the East Side of Charleston to the northward the scene of wreckage which meets the eye is desolate in the extreme. All piers on the east side are stripped bare, the sheds being leveled. Three (unreadable) are total wrecks. Many (unreadable) and pleasure crafts are broken in pieces, literally ground up by the fury of waves and wind. The streets all over the city are strewn with debris.

“Seventy five percent of all telephone, telegraph and electric lights are completely down. Large trees are lying across the streets, roofs are entirely bare.”

L.N. Jesunofsky, Charleston Weather Bureau, Aug. 28, 1893.

But the telegraph was new technology then; hurricane alerts were little more than a heads-up in 1893, and nobody on the sea islands south of Charleston was anywhere near a line to hear one.

On Aug. 27 of that year, exactly 120 years ago Tuesday, the winds started screaming, the seas climbing. The storm struck near Savannah, with the 120 mph winds tearing apart houses and storm waves gauged to be 16 feet high putting the islands off Beaufort under water.

An estimated 2,000 people died in the storm, and tens of thousands were left with nothing. It might have been even worse than that, but there’s no good accounting because most of the people on those islands were poor, black rice-field workers.

Clara Barton, the American Red Cross founder who launched a 10-month relief effort on the islands where she had served as a nurse during the Civil War, said some 35,000 people lived on the islands.

“At first it was thought that all must have perished. Later, it was found that only some four or five thousand had been drowned, and that thirty thousand remained with no earthly possession of home, clothing, or food,” she told the Beaufort Gazette.

The 1893 storm, the so-called Sea Islands Hurricane, has been overshadowed by later monsters such as the Galveston Hurricane, Hugo, Andrew and Katrina. But it’s still considered one of the deadliest storms in American history.

It spun destruction from Jacksonville, Fla., into New York.

Anne Weston Smoak of Magnolia Beach, near Pawleys Island, survived by clinging for hours to a sea cedar tree outside her home, with the ocean roiling so ferociously around her that she became convinced at one point that the tree was being swept out to sea, she told the Charleston News and Courier 40 years later.

It’s a cautionary tale as we head into the worst weeks of storm threats in the hurricane season.

Accounts from that time describe a massive, powerful storm.

“The Western Union office failed 3 o’clock Sunday afternoon. The last telegraph out of Charleston read: ‘The gale is severe. Reported that Sullivan’s Island has been swept over by a tidal wave and is completely submerged,’” according to a Preservation Society of Charleston account.

That hurricane followed a storm earlier in August that just missed the Lowcountry offshore. It was followed by the “Charleston Hurricane,” another Category 3 hurricane that made landfall in Georgetown in October, drowning more than a dozen people.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.