Hurricane Hazel, October 1954
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
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.
(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.