Worst Hurricane in North Carolina: 50 Years Later

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
October 14, 2004

Fifty years ago tomorrow, Connie Ledgett and her first husband, Jerry Helms, were awakened at daybreak by howling winds and pounding surf. Hurricane Hazel, the worst hurricane in North Carolina's history, was about to engulf their honeymoon cottage on Oak Island, near Wilmington.

On that long ago Friday morning, Ledgett and her husband would face winds of 140 miles an hour (225 kilometers an hour) and an 18-foot (5.5-meter) storm surge that would, as the U.S. Weather Bureau later said, nearly wipe out "all traces of civilization" along a 35-mile (56-kilometer) stretch of North Carolina's southeastern coast.

But Hazel, a raging freak of nature riding the highest lunar tide of the year, was just starting its rampage when it gave the honeymooners a wakeup call on October 15, 1954. During the next 24 hours, the storm would inflict death and devastation from South Carolina to Canada.

The tempest's legacy would include more than vivid memories of its power. The storm would spur new hurricane research and monitoring and change perceptions about the level of chaos hurricanes can cause far from the ocean.

Meteorologists watched Hazel with fascination and concern since the day it had formed, October 5, from a system of thunderstorms that rolled off the east coast of Africa. Hurricanes are often spawned from African weather systems during the early months of the hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30. Hurricanes that form after September, however, are far more likely to originate in the Caribbean Sea or Gulf of Mexico.

Hurricane Hazel's fierceness was quickly apparent. The storm killed hundreds when it struck Haiti on October 12.

On October 14, Air Force Capt. William Harrell, a meteorologist, was aboard a B-29 bomber that had been assigned to investigate Hazel as the storm pounded northward near the Bahamas. Harrell, who had flown into several other hurricanes, was astonished by the way Hazel's winds were thrashing the sea.

"Usually the ocean is blue or green with little cotton-white patches," Harrell later told United Press International. "But the hurricane eye was like a sheer white sheet as far as I could see. To me, this was truly a phenomenal sea. The force of the … wind was cutting the tops off all waves and making the ocean a continuous mass of whitecaps and frothing foam."

As Harrell was marveling at Hazel's power, Ledgett and her husband were trying to enjoy their honeymoon. Ledgett had brought her portable record player to her parents' cottage so she could listen to her favorite hit tunes of the day, such as "Sh-Boom," by the Chords.

She and her husband knew a hurricane had formed, but they had no idea it was heading straight for them. There was no television or telephone in the cottage. Ledger was playing her records instead of listening to a radio, and they missed Coast Guard patrolmen who warned Oak Island residents of the storm's approach the day before.

Ledgett and her husband knew they were in danger soon after the storm woke them, and they decided to leave. "I was packing up my records, and I could see the ocean billowing above the dunes," she said. "At that time there was a high barrier-dune ridge, and normally you could not see the ocean. When I saw the ocean up above the sand dunes, I realized we were in trouble."

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