In the wake of a devastating hurricane that ravaged his neighborhood in 2016, Richard Beck took to Folly Beach in Charleston, South Carolina. Having endured a period of great danger, Beck was perhaps hoping to regain a sense of calm following the storm. But as he surveyed the sands around him, he noticed something strange.
Beck had spotted a number of metal items, merged together and partially covered by the sand. And it seems that he recognized straight away that these objects weren’t to be taken lightly. In fact, Beck appears to have understood that the artifacts could prove dangerous to beach-goers.
And so, being a responsible citizen, Beck opted to phone the cops to let them know about what he’d found. But it seems that dealing with the situation was beyond even the capabilities of the local authorities. As a result, the police in turn contacted a more specialized unit in order to receive expert assistance.
These potentially hazardous objects had become exposed due to Hurricane Matthew, a particularly strong storm system that initially formed in late September 2016. It lasted for just under two weeks, resulting in extensive damage to areas of the United States. However, the worst effects of the storm were seen in the nation of Haiti.
Hurricane Matthew initially derived from an instance of low air pressure above the seawaters of Africa on September 22, 2016. Six days later, it had developed into a tropical storm, which from that point was known as Matthew. And the following day, the storm morphed into a hurricane.
Then, on September 30 Matthew intensified greatly – and rapidly. In fact, in the course of just a day, its wind speeds essentially doubled, ending up at in excess of 160 miles per hour. Escalation of this scale and ferocity is thankfully said to be rare.
On October 4 Hurricane Matthew smashed into Haiti, specifically at an area called Les Anglais. By this point, the storm’s winds were reportedly clocking in at around 150 miles per hour. And that meant that Matthew was the most powerful storm to sweep through Haiti since the middle of the 1960s.
Hurricane Matthew ultimately proved to be a devastating event for Haiti. As it passed through the country, the significant levels of rain and strong gales had a hugely adverse impact. All in all, close to 1.5 million of the nation’s inhabitants required help, with many unable to access the most basic of human necessities such as food and shelter.
Across Haiti, approximately 200,000 properties were damaged, with some of them being totally demolished. In certain regions, crops were almost entirely wiped out, instigating a food shortage. Lines of communication were cut as well, as were certain road networks. In total, close to $3 billion worth of damage was inflicted upon the poverty stricken nation.
The hurricane devastated Haiti in other ways, too. For instance, the severe weather conditions impaired more than 400 schools, with around 150 more being adapted into makeshift shelters for those who’d lost their homes. Approximately 130,000 kids in all were impacted by these developments.
And on top of that, a number of the country’s medical facilities were affected. Four hospitals were harmed, while another was totally wiped out. In addition, some 35 clinics across the nation were also impacted by the storm, with many also stretched to their limits by an influx of new patients.
Numerous fatalities were reported in the wake of Hurricane Matthew passing through Haiti. Figures vary greatly, however. Initial reports claimed that up to 1,600 people had perished, but lower totals of below 550 have since been put forward. In any case, though, Haiti was undoubtedly left in a state of disrepair and mourning.
Hurricane Matthew eventually passed through Haiti and made its way to Cuba. Here, as a consequence of the mountainous landscape that it encountered, the storm weakened. But after moving on from Cuba, the storm system began to intensify once again before it reached the Bahamas. There, electricity blackouts and other damage occurred.
The storm system subsequently reached the shores of United States, albeit in a weaker state than previously. It travelled along the coasts of Georgia and Florida, with the latter state also feeling Hurricane Matthew’s impact inland. By October 8 the strength of the storm had diminished even further, but it nonetheless managed to reach South Carolina.
Even though the storm was much less powerful than it had been when sweeping through Haiti, it still produced winds of more than 80 miles per hour in South Carolina. In fact, it was considered to be the most powerful hurricane to hit the United States in half a decade. And while its impact was less horrifying than that seen in Haiti, it was nonetheless serious.
Hurricane Matthew claimed 47 victims in all across the United States, with the majority of these deaths occurring in North Carolina. There, 26 people were reported to have been killed, with 12 perishing in Florida, two in Virginia, three in Georgia, and four in South Carolina. The damages were estimated at around $10 billion, making Matthew the most costly calamity in the U.S. that year.
In South Carolina, large numbers of people were left without power. The storm also led to a seawall in the city of Charleston being compromised. This in turn brought about numerous instances of flooding throughout the area. In the small city of Folly Beach, for example, local authorities even enforced a curfew in the wake of the storm.
Despite power outages impacting Folly Beach, the area seemingly survived the storm a little better than might initially have been expected. In fact, local traders reportedly claimed that their premises had been left generally unimpaired. And residents, too, were seemingly relieved. “We expected a lot worse,” a local named Barry Price told Live 5 WCSC on October 12.
So it was possibly with a sense of relief that resident Richard Beck took to the shoreline for a stroll, following Hurricane Matthew’s passing through Folly Beach. But any sense of relaxation that he might have felt must surely have been short-lived. That’s because he noticed something dangerous lying in the sand before him.
Strange metal items were poking out of the sand near Beck, who was once the mayor of Folly Beach. Another person might have been dismissive in their response to these objects, but Beck recognized how dangerous the artifacts might be. Indeed, he quickly identified that there was a possibility they might explode.
“I knew they were cannonballs,” Beck recalled when speaking to WCSC News. “One of them had a very distinct hole in it that went directly into it. Just knowing a little bit about the Civil War, I know that they put fuses in cannonballs for them to explode when they desired them to.”
Indeed, Beck had managed to stumble upon a heap of 16 cannonballs, which had become exposed as a result of the hurricane. They appeared to date back to the American Civil War. Ultimately, this isn’t actually that strange a notion – Charleston, after all, is noted for its associations with the historic conflict.
In fact, it’s said that the opening shots of the American Civil War occurred at Charleston’s Fort Sumter. And on top of that, the specific beach upon which Beck came across the cannonballs was, at one time, a pivotal location for Union soldiers.
The American Civil War ended back in May 1865, of course, but numerous artifacts from the conflict continue to be uncovered. And in spite of their grand old age, some of these finds can nonetheless be extremely dangerous. In 2008, for instance, a person in Virginia died when a cannonball he was trying to restore blew up.
Speaking in the wake of that incident, an expert in locating artifacts from the Civil War spoke to the Associated Press about the prevalence of such objects throughout southern regions of the United States. “There just aren’t many areas in the South in which battlefields aren’t located,” he said. “They’re literally under your feet.”
So given the potentially deadly consequences of discovering a Civil War relic, it might be said that Richard Beck did the right thing. Upon coming across the cannonballs along the coast at Folly Beach, he phoned the police. And they, in turn, reached out to the Air Force bomb squad.
By the time that the relevant authorities had arrived at the scene, however, a high tide prevented work from being undertaken. “We had to wait until after seven [o’clock] for the tide to go down,” Eric Watson of the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office said, as reported by USA Today. “When the tide receded our guys and members of the U.S. Air Force explosive team used a small amount of C-4 to detonate the cannonballs right there on the beach.”
However, there have been reports that two of the cannonballs weren’t destroyed in the end. This pair were said to have been made inactive, although it’s unclear where they will now be taken. The other cannonballs that had been found in the heap were destroyed by the bomb squad.
Such a dramatic act of destruction would certainly have been undertaken for the sake of ensuring beach-goers’ safety. Nonetheless, there are those who think that the cannonballs needn’t have suffered such a fate. In fact, an Arkansas-based archaeologist named Carl Drexler has expressed his dismay publicly.
Drexler has pointed out that, although it’s not uncommon to come across artifacts from the Civil War in Charleston, it’s still important to keep them from being destroyed. With regard to cannonballs in particular, historians aren’t yet familiar with the technical specifications to which they were constructed. As a result, researchers potentially stand to lose a lot every time that a cannonball is blown up.
“Having an intact piece of American history like that is always vital,” Drexler told The Post and Courier. “A lot of times what we’re finding is that when these things get destroyed, there are no fragments collected, no parts of the fuses or anything like that. We lose the opportunity to find any kind of undocumented things, as well.”
So rather than sitting idle as historic munitions such as cannonballs are destroyed, Drexler has opted to take action. In fact, he’s attempted to acquaint himself with bomb specialists in the hope that they contact him before getting down to work. And he’s also tried to put together a program focusing on historic artifacts that’s aimed at these experts.
In addition, Drexler has also rounded up some archaeologists to join his cause. One such recruit is James Legg from the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology in Columbia. Like Drexler, Legg has borne witness to numerous historical artifacts being lost forever.
While Legg recognizes the risks posed by old explosives, he isn’t necessarily of the opinion that destroying them is always the best course of action. “There’s a couple of good reasons not to ignore the fact that there’s some danger involved,” he told The Post and Courier. “The step should be [to] get it disarmed by someone who knows what they’re doing, as opposed to blowing it up with plastic explosives.”
And there is evidence to suggest that bomb squads are perhaps not quite as trigger happy as one might think. After all, two of the cannonballs found by Richard Beck were saved from destruction. In addition, the decision to blow up the others in that haul apparently wasn’t taken lightly.
Mars Hansen, a staff sergeant with the Air Force, spoke to The Post and Courier about the controlled explosion. He pointed out that the cannonballs did actually pose a risk to the public. Moreover, many of them were stuck together, which meant that disarming them would have proven difficult.
“To make that decision [to destroy the cannonballs], we just look at the overall picture and make a risk assessment,” Hansen told the newspaper. And he highlighted the fact that a pair of the cannonballs had been saved. Indeed, these two might even be judged worthy of being to be sent to the Charleston Museum.
Given the general wear and tear to which they’d been exposed, however, the two saved cannonballs might not be fit for display at the museum. Yet they nonetheless could prove useful for historians. Indeed, as Grahame Long, the curator for the establishment, has pointed out, they might be able to shed light on the development of weaponry throughout the Civil War.
According to Long, bomb specialists in Charleston have started to reach out to historians upon discovering artifacts. In fact, he’s even suggested that some members have taken lessons to learn about what constitutes an important relic. And this, the museum curator seems to recognize, is potentially an important development.
“[Bomb squads] have started to be, to their credit, a lot more cognizant of what could potentially be historically significant,” Long told The Post and Courier. “I thought that was a really progressive thought on their part. That they were taking the initiative to make sure that they weren’t just wantonly exploding stuff before we could at least learn something from it.”