Event Summary
     National Weather Service, Raleigh NC

Hurricane Hazel, October 1954

Hurricane Hazel

On the morning of October 15, Hurricane Hazel made a direct hit on the heart of North Carolina. It was one of the greatest natural disasters to ever affect the state, and one of the most destructive hurricanes to strike the United States.

The North Carolina damage report:
An estimated $136 million in property damage
19 deaths
200 injuries
15,000 homes and structures destroyed. 39,000 structures damaged

Hurricane Hazel Track

Hazel developed east of the Windward Islands on October 5, 1954. The storm developed into a hurricane and then moved west through the Windward Islands. Hazel continued moving west through the Caribbean Sea during the following three days. An upper level low pressure system located in the central Caribbean gradually turned Hazel northeastward during the 9th-11th of October, steering the storm across Haiti as a hurricane on October 12th.

Hazel intensified to a Category 3 Hurricane on October 13th. An upper level trough of low pressure over the Mississippi Valley turned the Hurricane north across the southeastern Bahamas. As the trough amplified, it pulled the strengthening hurricane closer to the southeastern United States coast. On the 15th, Hazel accelerated toward the Carolina coast. Hazel made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane near the North Carolina/South Carolina border, placing the eastern one-third of North Carolina in the dangerous right front quadrant of the storm.

After landfall, the Hurricane continued its northward trajectory moving across North Carolina and Virginia during the morning of October 15th. Hazel continued to push northward across the Mid Atlantic states and into Pennsylvania and New York during the afternoon and evening of October 15. The weakened but still powerful remnants of Hazel moved into southeastern Ontario and southwestern Quebec on the 15th and 16th.

Hurricane Hazel Track - Click to enlarge
(Click the image to enlarge.)

1954 and 1955 - An Active Period of Hurricanes Along the Carolina Coast

The hurricane seasons of the 1950’s were some of the most active for North Carolina during this century. In fact, six named storms either made landfall or brought hurricane conditions to North Carolina during the 1954 and 1955 hurricane seasons.

Three hurricanes impacted North Carolina between the end of August and the middle of October of 1954. Hurricane Carol developed over the Bahamas on August 25, before delivering a glancing blow to North Carolina on the night of August 30, as it accelerated northeastward and eventually made landfall in New York and Connecticut. As the storm passed, hurricane force winds buffeted the Outer Banks, with wind gusts peaking near 100 mph at Cape Hatteras. Weaker, but still respectable wind gusts of 55 to 65 mph were felt farther west, in Wilmington and New Bern. Only two days later, on September 2, 1954, a new tropical cyclone was born east of the Windward Islands. What would become known as Hurricane Edna, took an eerily similar track to her predecessor, except displaced about 50 miles further to the east than Carol. However, unlike Carol, Edna continued on a more northerly track and moved right over the Outer Banks on September 10th, before accelerating to the northeast and making landfall in Massachusetts.

Then less than one month later, Hurricane Hazel developed east of the Windward Islands on October 5. The storm would take a route across the Caribbean Sea, over Hati, through the eastern Bahamas, and then onto the Carolina Coast, south of Wilmington.

Wind Gusts from Hurricane Hazel

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 4 hour period, and all the way to southeastern Canada within only 12 hours of landfall. Sustained hurricane force winds overspread all of eastern North Carolina, Virginia, and the lower Maryland eastern shore, including 79 mph in Raleigh, 78 mph in Norfolk, and 78 mph-Washington, D.C. The highest gusts at these locations approached or exceeded 100 mph, including an unofficial gust of 130 mph in Hampton, VA. Locations as far north as New York State observed winds in excess of 90 mph.

Hurricane Hazel Storm Surge

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.

Hazel's Impact Felt Across the Eastern Seaboard and Southern Canada

A total of 15,000 homes or buildings were destroyed throughout the state, including some 39,000 damaged structures. Thousands of trees were downed by the combination of tropical-rain soaked ground and ferocious winds. 30 of North Carolina’s 100 counties sustained major damage. Based on reports from residents in the capital city of Raleigh, an average of two or three trees fell per city block, many on homes, automobiles, and power lines. In all, an estimated $136 million in damage occurred in North Carolina as a result of the mighty hurricane. Damage reached to nearly $281 million when the dollar damage in NC was combined with damage estimates from the rest of the United States. The storm went on to produce another $100 million in damage in Canada, as it accelerated northward and became extratropical. Most of the damage there resulted from heavy rain, nearly a foot in less than twenty four hours, associated with the remnants of Hazel. When all was said and done, the death toll included: 400-1000 in Haiti, 6 in the Bahamas, 95 in the US (including 19 deaths and 200 injured in North Carolina alone), and 100 more in Canada.

Hurricane Hazel produced the largest swath of hurricane force winds this century over Virginia and North Carolina. As active as the 1954 hurricane season was for North Carolinians, it was followed by an equally active 1955 hurricane season, when three more storms struck the state. However, none of those could match the fury of the historic Hurricane Hazel.

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Michael Strickler
Douglas Schneider
Jonathan Blaes

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