A hurricane is described as an intense tropical weather system of strong thunderstorms with well-defined surface circulation and maximum sustained winds of 74 mph or higher. They are categorized according to the strength of their winds on a scale of 1 – 5. A Category 1 storm has the lowest wind speeds; a Category 5 has the strongest. In October 1954 one of the century’s most intense storms, Hurricane Hazel, a Category 4, landed on the southern coast of North Carolina. Winds were clocked at 150 mph on Holden Beach. By the time she reached Goldsboro the winds screamed on at 120 mph. Even as far inland as Raleigh the storm roared on with hurricane-strength winds from 80 – 100 mph. Hurricanes seldom travel so far inland. Hazel flattened everything in her path, earning a nickname: “The Bulldozer”. Trees snapped like twigs, littering the highways by the thousands. World War II veterans likened the damage to a scene from the war. Hazel affected land and people from Jamaica to Canada. In NC alone, nineteen people died, more than 200 people were hurt, more than 15,000 homes and buildings were destroyed. The Weather Bureau in Raleigh issued an official report stating: “all traces of civilization on the immediate waterfront between the state line and Cape Fear were practically annihilated.” The NOAA report stated, “Every pier in a distance of 170 miles of coastline was demolished.”
Three couples from High Point were trapped in a house on Ocean Isle Beach, then washed away by a tidal wave, along with members of a neighboring family. Only one of the couples survived. The other two couples left eight orphans to mourn them. A couple honeymooning on Oak Island were washed up in a tidal wave. They managed to survive by tying themselves together with a blanket and clinging to trees until the storm passed. Oak Island (then known as Long Beach) was completely devastated.
Hurricane prediction was not as accurate then as it is now, but people were aware that there was a hurricane in the Atlantic. It had destroyed three towns in Haiti and killed 1,000 people there. Hazel was predicted to head into the Gulf of Mexico and weaken. However, the freakish storm made a sudden right turn and headed north. Still, it was expected to pass the Carolina coast and go on out to sea. Needless to say, she did not follow the projected course.
My parents and I met Hurricane Hazel head on that fateful day, October 15th, 1954. I was 4 years old at the time. I was not impressed. We were traveling in our Studebaker from our home in Harrisonburg, Va to visit my grandparents in Zebulon, NC. Mama was pregnant with my baby brother although that didn’t mean much to me at the time. I was happily playing with my doll, Bonnie, when I first became aware of the storm. Daddy lifted me out of the back seat and put me in the front seat beside Mama. I looked out the windshield. The wipers were slapping back and forth in vain – making no impression on the rain gushing down against the glass. Daddy had pulled the car off the road and into the driveway of a farm house. There was a large oak tree in the yard. Daddy said that he was going to see if we could go inside the house to wait out the storm. I wanted to go with him. He said I should wait in the car with Mama. Mama told him to be careful. I wasn’t sure why. When Daddy got out of the car I asked Mama whose house it was. She didn’t know.
“Then why are we going there?” I asked, very perplexed at this odd event. Mama said she and Daddy thought we might be safer inside a house than in a car. I remained puzzled. I felt perfectly safe. I decided to pay more attention. Mama and I watched Daddy as he made his way toward the house. The wind was blowing fiercely and it made Daddy’s clothes look funny. I noticed he put his hand up to his face to shield his eyes. He climbed the steps to the house slowly, it seemed. He did not knock politely at the door, rather he banged on it with both his big fists. As he beat at the door, I looked at Mama. Her face was tense. I asked what was wrong. She said I shouldn’t worry – that we would be alright. Her words did not convince me. Her face was saying something else. But what?
After a while Daddy made his way back to the car. There were leaves and sticks flying in the air around him. When he got back into the car he said that if anyone was in the house they probably couldn’t hear him knocking what with all the wind and rain. His face was dripping wet and he mopped it with a handerkerchief from his pocket. By this time, I was quite aware that something was wrong. As if to confirm my fears, there was a sudden thud on the top of the car, loud popping and the windshield flashed with a very bright white light and then something big, black and snake-like slithered and danced across the windshield. Mama screamed. I pulled myself up into a little ball on the seat, a small knot of fear in my chest. Daddy put both his arms around me and Mama. He said that an electric wire had fallen on our car and we would be alright if we just stayed in the car.
The three of us sat in the car and watched the storm as it blew wind, rain, limbs and leaves all around us. The sound it made was deafening. The small knot of fear in my chest began to grow and I whimpered. Daddy hugged me to him and said not to worry; that we were going to be “just fine”. He reached down and picked up my doll, Bonnie. He handed her to me and said, “You just play with Bonnie. There’s nothing for you to worry about.” And with that, the knot of fear dissolved – just like that! Even when the enormous oak tree in the yard was ripped up out of the ground by its roots and fell over into the yard I didn’t worry. In fact, that’s the most I remember about the storm that day. How long we sat there or how we managed to get to my grandparents is unknown to me. I remember that we sang songs together and I played with my doll. The next memory I have of that day is being at my grandparents. Gramma cooked me some scrambled eggs and cheese. Grampa held me on his knee and gave me one of his delicious Sundrops. All was right in my world.
I was too young to understand how wicked and powerful Hurricane Hazel had been. I was too naïve to know how very lucky my family had been to have survived our experience completely unscathed. There wasn’t even a scratch on our car. All totaled, Hazel was responsible for 95 deaths and $281 million in damage in the United States, 100 deaths and $100 million in damage in Canada, and an estimated 400 to 1,000 deaths in Haiti. That number was never confirmed.
Hazel certainly made her mark in history but I have to admit that I am always surprised when I read the statistics and records even though I was directly in the path of her fury. It is as if I were at a still point there with my parents – secure in the knowledge that my daddy was taking care of everything.