Worst Hurricane in North Carolina: 50 Years Later

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Soon the ocean had risen to the height of second-story windows and the young husband and wife were tied together by a blanket, clinging to a makeshift raft composed of a mattress and a chunk of wall the storm tore from a house. "At that moment we were at the mercy of the wind and water," Ledgett said. "Whatever happened to us then was not in our control."

The hurricane flung the couple into the tops of the scrub oak trees that give the island its name. Ledgett has no idea how long she and her husband clung to the treetops. "Time actually stood still," she said.

When the storm finally passed, the water drained off Oak Island, and the couple climbed down from the trees and began walking toward Southport, the closest town. They were surrounded by devastation. One area where cottages had stood was only bare sand. Other cottages had been shoved off their foundations and scattered, their windows tilting skyward.

The honeymooners were met by Ledgett's parents, who had driven through the storm to Oak Island to check on their daughter and son-in-law. The young couple's ordeal was over, but for others it was just beginning.

On the evening of October 15, 1954, Morgan Beatty of NBC radio news told listeners that Hurricane Hazel was "running amok" as it roared up the East Coast at better than 50 miles an hour (80 kilometers an hour). Winds of 120 miles an hour (190 kilometers an hour) were reported in Goldsboro and Kinston, North Carolina, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the ocean.

Winds reached almost 100 miles an hour (160 kilometers an hour) in parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New York. In Norfolk, Virginia, a battleship under construction was torn from its moorings and shoved aground. Along the way, 95 people were killed, nearly all of them by drowning.

Around 10 p.m., the storm swept across Lake Ontario and into Canada. Wind gusts of 110 miles an hour (177 kilometers an hour) were reported in Ontario, and torrential rains sent floods surging through Toronto, killing 78 more people. The storm didn't completely break up until October 18 after it had crossed Canada.

Hurricane Hazel caused hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damages, but the storm is infamous for more reasons than the misery it inflicted. Hazel's peak winds make it a Category Four on the Saffir-Simpson scale, which rates hurricanes from One to Five, based on wind speeds and destructive potential. Chris Landsea, a hurricane researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Hazel is the only Category Four storm on record to have made it as far north as North Carolina.

Hurricanes draw their energy from very warm ocean water, and once they get north of Florida, the water is seldom warm enough to sustain a Category Four storm.

The U.S. Weather Bureau installed radar at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in 1955. Landsea said this probably was done as a response to Hurricane Hazel. The storm also spurred federal funding for national hurricane research projects in 1956 and 1957, he said.

Hazel prompted Canadian authorities to create a flood-control agency in Toronto.

Meteorologists are still amazed at how long Hurricane Hazel held together after it made landfall. Jerry Jackson, a meteorologist for WWAY-TV in Wilmington, North Carolina, said stubbornly intense, fast-moving hurricanes such as Hazel are often called bulldozer storms, because their punch stays with them for so long. "Essentially, it was outrunning the normal process of weakening," Jackson said.

On Oak Island, a cottage that withstood Hurricane Hazel's ferocity is still perched on the dune that kept it above the all-consuming storm surge, and graceful, wind-sculpted oaks have returned near the ocean. But the island is now packed with houses and cottages built since 1954.

Other powerful, destructive hurricanes have come ashore in North Carolina since Hazel, but none of them have approached the intensity of this freakish storm. Still, that doesn't mean that someday Oak Island's many new residents won't be facing another watery, windy monster. And this time the barrier dune that Hazel chewed away won't be there to protect them.

"If there's anything we've learned about hurricanes, it is that if something happened in the past, it's guaranteed to happen again," Landsea said. "The only question is when. It might be this year, it might be 50 years from now."

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