Remembering Hazel

It was this month 65 years ago that brought the fury of a late storm – Hurricane Hazel – to our region. Making landfall on October 15, 1954 at Calabash as a Category 4 storm with winds of 140 miles per hour and an 18-foot storm surge, Hazel left unbelievable devastation in its wake. Nineteen people in North Carolina died; 95 were killed in the United States and Canada and over 400 in Haiti as the storm roared through. Damages to the U.S. were estimated at $280 million; $100 million in Canada.

Though the damage and death statistics are astounding, it is the personal stories of those who lived through the storm that really shine a light on its effect on our communities. Thanks to the Southport Historical Society’s archives in the Susie Carson Research Room, many accounts and photographs of the storm’s impact to our area are available online. Some of those newspaper reports and personal accounts follow.

Susie Carson, Wilmington Morning Star, October 14, 1999

“Hurricane Hazel struck with full fury at high tide. Our faithful weather observer, Mrs. Jessie Taylor, had rendered outstanding service as the hurricane approached, especially on the previous evening. All through the storm she made sure that the flags and lights on the weather tower were in place and reports made to the Weather Bureau. Lasting 15 hours, with winds reaching 140 miles per hour, Hazel destroyed all shrimp houses, wharves and fuel docks. Huge trawlers were lifted into Bay Street; cars were crushed, streets flooded and great old oaks toppled onto roofs and streets. Two stores and the upper section of the old wooden pilot tower were destroyed. Water came up into’ Mack’s Cafe, Riverside Motel, and Quack’s Seafood Shack. The famous old Stuart House was damaged beyond repair. Ledrew Sellers’ store was heavily damaged and its porch floated off toward Moore Street. Slabs of bacon, cigarette cartons, cans without labels, packaged foods and other items floated around the building in the whirling waters. Devastation was great all over town, but no lives were lost. When the storm subsided, neighbors began helping neighbors. National Guard units arrived. With no electricity, food preparation was a problem. Mrs. Sellers, with a little coal burning water heater in her kitchen, cooked many pots of chicken bog for family and neighbors who salvaged food from freezers before it could spoil. Served with the chicken bog were the contents of those cans without labels. Many were surprises! Others with gas stoves and camp stoves helped out. Refugees from the beaches were served food cooked on the huge gas stove at the lunchroom. As rehabilitation began, Diamond Construction Company gave freely of its workers and equipment to lift vessels back into the river. ‘The Red Cross offered assistance.”

State Port Pilot, October 1982

“At the old Southport yacht basin where boats had gone for protection against wind and high water, big trawlers were lifted over the bulkhead and came to rest at various points within the block between the Joel Moore Store and Quack’s Sea Shack. Sunny Point Army Terminal then was under the last phase of construction and heavy equipment from McLean Construction Co., one of the contractors, came to the rescue by lifting these big boats by a belly-strap and depositing them once more in the water. Johnny Simmons had completed a big new shrimp trawler which he called “The Finest Kind”, and it took up in the marsh about a quarter mile from water. A channel had to be dug to get her afloat. A barge belonging to the Willis brothers ran aground on Moore Street near Fiddler’s Drain and that stream had to be re-routed to help float it free. Land side casualties included the Dan Harrelson Grocery and the Army Surplus Store on Bay Street. The upper section of the old Pilot Tower also went down before the wind. Water came up on Mack’s Cafe, the Riverside Motel and Quack’s Sea Shack, but the buildings survived. The Stuart House took an awful beating and later was dismantled, removing an historic waterfront landmark.”

UNCW Randall Library Special Collections

“Leila Pigott describing the aftermath of Hurricane Hazel on fisheries. ‘The world literally turned to shrimp. We’ve never seen anything like the shrimp that were caught after Hurricane Hazel. Now, there were a lot of boats that could not get out. They were up in the woods; they were up in the streets; they were everywhere. But those that could get out, they just came back loaded. I will tell you this, their nets were torn all to pieces; they had parts of refrigerators. They had beds. They had houses; they had a little bit of everything, but shrimp, I have never seen so many shrimp in all of my life!’”

The Star News, October 15, 1994

“Eighteen North Carolinians died, the majority of them in Brunswick County. A number of the dead were in a group that stayed at Ocean Isle Beach as the deadly storm approached. Only two of the 33 beach houses there survived the storm. Property damage in the two Carolinas was estimated at $60 million. In Southeastern North Carolina. New Hanover County beach resorts were the hardest hit, according to a retrospective published by the Wilmington Printing Co. Damage at Carolina Beach alone was estimated at $17 million. About 360 buildings there were destroyed and 288 suffered major damage. The storm destroyed 89 buildings at Wrightsville Beach and severely damaged 155. Damage was estimated at $7 million.”

James Harper, State Port Pilot, Spring 1995

“Mrs. Ken Bruno was proprietor of the Long Beach Inn until October 1954 and Hurricane Hazel, which marked both the end and beginning of Long Beach development. ‘The Coast Guard came by and told us around midnight we’d have to get off the beach — that the beach had to be cleared — and I spent the night in Southport in the Camellia Inn,’ she said. But not everyone got that word, or heeded it, and on Long Beach at least six people died and others came within inches — or moments — of their lives. Charlie Trott rode out on one end of a refrigerator, glaring across a snake that was riding out at the other end, Mrs. Bruno said. And Cleveland Swain saved his life by getting to some high dunes behind his house and burying himself in the sand so he wouldn’t wash away. When the fury of the storm subsided on the afternoon of October 15, 1954, those residents who had been driven off Oak Island, including Ken Bruno and her daughter, returned. ‘I was devastated,’ Ken Bruno remembers. ‘It was unbelievable.’ From where they could first look down Long Beach there was nothing they recognized. ‘It looked like virgin beach,’ she said. Later they got onto the beach, walked to where the Long Beach Inn had been turned sideways off its foundations. The first floor was destroyed, but on the second floor Fed Heart Valentine, the family Chesapeake retriever, was ready for human company. ‘Kay shinnied up to the second floor and found the dog, two cats, and our goldfish still swimming around in their bowl,’ Mrs. Bruno said. That was the end of Long Beach I. Yaupon had been badly damaged and many houses swept away from Caswell too.”

John Sanders, UNC Sea Grant

“After taking refuge in a two-story house, Connie and Jerry Helms watched as the island went under water and beach cottages were lifted from their foundations or pounded into pieces by the storm surge and the large waves. Every building within sight had been destroyed and still the water continued to rise. Downstairs furniture, small appliances and dishes crashed against the walls. The Helms knew that it was only a matter of time before their shelter would collapse under the stress of waves and wind. Tying themselves together with a flannel blanket, the Helms pushed a mattress through the second story. window into the water that swirled just inches below the second-story window frame. Connie Helms, who could not swim, climbed onto the mattress and Jerry Helms dropped into the water. Connie recalled that moment. ‘We’d hoped to float to this sand dune that stood between the house and Davis Creek. But we didn’t count on the winds shifting (and) … instead we were pushed across Davis Creek -into the tops of some small scrub oaks that stood 30 feet off the ground.’ There the Helms rode out the final hours of the storm.”

State Port Pilot

“A more precise accounting of what Hazel did at Long Beach was in the Pilot’s November 10 edition. There had been 357 cottages in the development and all but five had been destroyed or washed off their foundations. The public cost of removing debris had been reckoned at S10,500, and that sum was being sought from the state. A three-foot bulldozed ‘dike’ was also proposed along 53,000 feet of beach at a cost of $55,650, and sand fence costing $21,200 was being suggested to stabilize it. In the same issue we reported the first trial of looters arrested on Long Beach after the storm. By Christmas week, bulldozers were restoring the ten-mile Long Beach dune line under supervision of the county commissioners, and a dredge was expected shortly to start pumping sand into the inlet which Hazel had opened between the Capel Hill and Lockwood Folly Inlet.”

Though today’s coastal communities have long ago rebuilt from Hazel’s destruction, there’s no guarantee such a powerful storm could not hit us again. We have made changes to protect property; building codes were changed to require homes on stilts; perhaps more should be done.

For those interested in more information on our hurricane history, local author Jay Barnes is probably the most noted authority. Author of four books on hurricanes, including “North Carolina’s Hurricane History” and “Hurricane Hazel in the Carolinas,” Barnes is director of development for the North Carolina Aquarium Society.

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