Weathering the Storm

Published 9:06 am Thursday, September 18, 2014

Part 1 of a series

By Laura Leonard


This year marks several notable anniversaries of hurricanes that have impacted North Carolina: Hurricane Hazel (60th anniversary, 1954); Hurricane Hugo (25th anniversary, 1989); Hurricane Floyd (15th anniversary, 1999); and Hurricanes Frances and Ivan (10th anniversary, 2004). Hurricane Floyd was the costliest disaster to impact North Carolina as it devastated two-thirds of the state.

To commemorate these anniversaries, North Carolina Emergency Management has crafted a series of articles to be published by the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald. These articles not only reflects on some of the state’s most notable hurricanes, but also highlights some of the progress the state has made to ensure we are better prepared for such storms.

Part 1 of the series recalls Hurricane Hazel. It’s important to remind residents that preparedness begins at home. Everyone can take the steps necessary to be ready for any type of emergency.

Sixty years ago, the United States was on the verge of entering the conflict in Vietnam. Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio. Godzilla premiered in Tokyo. And North Carolina experienced one of the worst weather-related disasters in its history.

2014 marks the 60th anniversary of Hurricane Hazel, a Category 4 storm at landfall that was one of the deadliest and costliest hurricanes to date. It caused 19 deaths, 200 injuries and an estimated $1.2 billion in property damage in North Carolina alone. With wind speeds in excess of 120 miles per hour, storm surge as high as a two-story building and a 2,000 mile path of destruction, Hurricane Hazel ruined or damaged 54,000 homes and structures in the Tarheel State. Thousands of trees were downed by the combination of tropical-rain soaked ground and ferocious winds. Thirty of the state’s 100 counties sustained major damage.

Hazel lambasted southeastern North Carolina with some of the most destructive winds in the state’s history. The strongest winds ripped through the coastline between Myrtle Beach, SC and Cape Fear, NC, including wind speed estimates of 125 to 150 mph at Holden Beach, Oak Island, Calabash, Little River Inlet, and Wrightsville Beach.

The highest measured winds were 98 mph in Wilmington, and 106 mph in Myrtle Beach, SC, while Fayetteville and Raleigh-Durham measured gusts of 110 mph and 90 mph respectively. Sustained 2-minute average winds of 78 mph were also observed in Raleigh. Other inland areas such as Goldsboro, Kinston, and Faison reached wind speeds estimated at 120 mph.

The storm maintained its intensity further inland than most storms because it was moving so quickly, reaching forward speeds of near 55 mph. Hazel accelerated northward through Raleigh, Richmond, and Washington, D.C. within a four hour period, and all the way to southeastern Canada within only 12 hours of landfall.

The already remarkable damage Hazel inflicted was exacerbated by the timing at which the hurricane struck. Landfall occurred during the full moon of October – the highest lunar tide of the year. A storm surge in excess of 15 feet inundated southeastern North Carolina from Southport to Topsail Beach, with an astounding 18-foot surge reported at high tide at Calabash and on the island of Holden Beach. Incredibly, all but 12 of the 300 cottages in Holden Beach were destroyed. The surge also leveled many of shrimp houses that lined the riverfront, and put coastal Brunswick and New Hanover counties under water, effectively wiping out the beaches. The surge even reopened Mary’s Inlet, which had been artificially closed during the summer of 1955 by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Yet, Hurricane Hazel was merely the first of many notable storms to wreak havoc on North Carolina’s towns and communities. Upcoming stories in this series will follow the destructive paths of Hurricanes Hugo, Floyd, Frances and Ivan.

“As a state, we have made major strides in the past 15 years in regard to emergency planning and preparedness,” said Mike Sprayberry, state Emergency Management director. “We have cultivated stronger partnerships, developed more comprehensive plans and created preparedness tools like the ReadyNC mobile app to help anyone in North Carolina plan, prepare and stay informed. It’s important to see where we have been to know how far North Carolina’s emergency management program has come.”

Hurricanes, tornadoes, landslides and floods will all continue to impact North Carolina. State and local emergency managers have learned from each event and use those lessons to improve planning and response capabilities. These improvements enhance the state and county’s ability to respond, keeping people safe and saving lives.

Next in the series: Coordinating Efforts