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.

16 Comments

  1. Hello, Linda. I can’t recall Hazel. Possibly it hit New York City, which is where my family and I were in 1954. It’s amazing that you and your family were okay, despite being out in the storm, and despite electrical wires falling on the car.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suspect it had lost a bit of bluster by the time it reached you. My vantage point probably sealed its memory in my brain. Thanks so much for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What an amazing story! Your memory of fear is so very clear, then you played happily with your doll.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suspect fear leaves a mark at whatever age, don’t you think?
      I wish I still had Bonnie. She was my very favorite doll.
      Thanks for reading

      Like

      1. My strongest memories involve emotional extremes — both good and bad.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. quiall says:

    They still talk about Hurricane Hazel up here. It was considered the storm of all storms. It was before my time but even I remember the stories they told decades after the fact. It is probably a blessing that you don’t remember everything.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks to the confidence my father instilled I could let go of the terror that was probably swirling about them. I have read the many horror stories. I’m glad I only remember being safe. Thank you, as always, for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. heimdalco says:

    I hadn’t thought of Hurricane Hazel in decades & I remember far less about it but I DO remember vividly my grandmother talking about it quite a bit. We lived in Salisbury, NC in the time of Hazel but that’s all I’ve got in my memory … that & remembering my grandmother talking about it. I don’t know how it effected Salisbury but your post made me remember the name & I also remember vaguely seeing areas that my grandmother with comment on in connection to that hurricane. Now I want to know more about the effect it had in Salisbury. Your post was so well written I could visualize it moment to moment as I read it. How scared you must have been. How beautifully your dad calmed your fears, which is the warmest, most beautiful part of your scary post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and for your kind words. It would be interesting to hear your research on how Hazel specifically effected Salisbury. If you uncover anything of interest I’ll be “all ears”.

      Like

      1. heimdalco says:

        I did a Google search of ‘effect on Salisbury, NC by hurricane Hazel in 1954’ & got pictures … lots of them … from the storm around the state of NC but nothing specific about Salisbury. I’ll look again & let you know

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Do you still know people who have lived there all their lives? Store owners, perhaps?

        Like

      3. heimdalco says:

        No, just a cousin & her family but she wasn’t born in 1954. Sad how quickly we can lose the past …

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Yes, I know that feeling. I’m sorry.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Judy says:

    I, too, remember Hazel. We lived in Dillon, SC at the time. We lost a huge cinllhina ball tree on our garage. We the storm had passed, my big sister was granted the privilege of putting g on her rubber boots & rain coat & going into to back yard to pop the bubbles that were floating in the foot deep water. But because I was so little & my legs were hardly a foot in length, I was not allowed outside. I cried at that deprivation & remember that loss of experiencing bursting those storm bubbles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can just picture little you crying at the window. Poor baby! I hope you went out and popped all the bubbles you wanted after Ian passed. 🙂

      Like

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