Count down N.C.'s five most destructive hurricanes

Posted July 31, 2008
Updated July 22, 2011

— WRAL's Stormtracker 2008 takes you back in time to relive the five most destructive hurricanes to hit the Tar Heel State.

In the number five spot, Hurricane Hugo in September 1989 became the most powerful storm to strike the United States since Hurricane Camille 20 years earlier.

After walloping the low country of South Carolina, Hugo made a bee line for Charlotte. It crushed the Queen City with 85 mph winds and toppled an estimated 100,000 trees, including many stately oaks more than 70 years old.

Many people were out of power for two weeks or more, and intense rains fell across the state, including nearly seven inches as far west as Boone.

Twenty-nine counties reported damage from Hugo. Timber losses alone topped $250 million.

Hugo was blamed for 35 deaths, including seven in North Carolina, and shattered dollar records for destruction. Its final price tag was $7.2 billion, but Hurricane Andrew's havoc in Florida broke that national record only three years later.

The summer of 1960 brought number four on WRAL's list: Hurricane Donna, one of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit the U.S., whose devastation stretched from Florida through eastern North Carolina to New England.

Wild and erratic, Donna blasted Florida from two different directions and then took aim at Topsail Island in North Carolina. Wind speeds topped 100 mph, and tides rose 4 to 8 feet above normal.

Donna's destructive journey covered Carteret, Pamlico, Hyde and Tyrell counties. The category 3 hurricane churned up waters in the Albemarle Sound and smacked Elizabeth City with a windy wallop before attacking Tidewater Virginia.

The Crystal Coast drew the wrath of Donna, particularly Atlantic Beach, Beaufort and Morehead City. Residents reported extensive structural damage, severe beach erosion, heavy crop losses and extensive power outages.

Government officials blamed Donna for eight deaths, more than 100 injuries and $25 million of damage in North Carolina.

Donna, though, marked the end of a destructive decade of storms and the beginning of a long stretch of peaceful summers along North Carolina's coast.

It's hard to imagine what the third most-destructive hurricane, Hazel, would do today if it were to hit today with the same freakish ferocity with which it came ashore in October 1954. Hazel claims distinction as one of the deadliest and costliest storms in state history.

Hazel hit the southern coast of North Carolina at the worst time: the year's highest lunar tide, called the "marsh hen tide"by local hunters. The storm surge was a staggering 18 feet at Calabash.

Winds were clocked at 150 mph on Holden Beach, and even as far inland as Goldsboro and Kinston, winds whipped at 120 mph. The storm still had hurricane-strength winds when it roared through Raleigh.

As it flattened everything in its path, Hazel quickly earned a nickname: The Bulldozer. Trees snapped like dry spaghetti, littering highways by the thousands. Former soldiers likened the damage to a scene out of World War II.

Nineteen people died, and more than 200 people were hurt during Hazel's march across eastern North Carolina. More than 15,000 homes and other buildings were destroyed, pegging property losses at $136 million.

Hazel became a new point of reference for North Carolinians and created a high water mark for misery. But as in all catastrophes, heroes emerged from the rubble, and dramatic rescues pumped a sense of hope into the Carolina psyche.

A year later, three more hurricanes – Connie, Diane and Ione – pounded the state but did not hold a candle to Hazel.

Many North Carolinians have personal memories of Fran, in the number two spot on the list of North Carolina's most destructive hurricanes. Fran earned the moniker as the Paul Bunyan of North Carolina hurricanes, felling thousands of trees with the sharp blade of its wind power.

Half-a-million tourists and residents rushed inland as Fran took aim at the coast and then forced its way toward the Triangle. Landfall came near Bald Head Island, with winds of 115 mph and a storm surge between 8 and 12 feet. Wrightsville Beach and Topsail Island were heavily damaged, but that was just the beginning.

With winds still near hurricane strength, Fran blasted the Triangle, hitting the region harder than any hurricane since Hazel. It left a landscape littered without trees in virtually every neighborhood and power outages that lasted for more than a week.

Damage from Fran was so widespread that a state of emergency was declared in all of North Carolina's 100 counties – the first time in state history. Damage was pegged at $2.3 billion, and 24 people died.

All those storms, though, pale in comparison to the most destructive storm in state history, Hurricane Floyd, which brought devastating flood waters in September 1999.

Tropical Storm Dennis did Floyd's dirty work, coming ashore 10 days earlier and saturating the soil and filling the rivers. When Floyd made landfall near Wilmington, its relentless rains had nowhere to go but into the streets, highways and houses. Rain fell for more than 60 hours in some places.

Floyd became North Carolina's biggest killer of the 20th century, claiming 52 lives. Many victims died in their cars, trying to navigate flooded roads, while others perished in their homes, caught off guard by flooding.

Floyd inundated eastern North Carolina, including Rocky Mount, Wilson, Tarboro and Princeville, and put entire communities under water. The storm destroyed more than 8,000 homes and damaged 67,000 more.

Water pollution was rampant  as floodwater's covered 4.2 million acres and caused staggering farm and livestock losses. More than 30,000 hogs drowned in the storm.

Overall damage estimates from the storm were mind boggling. The initial estimate of $1.3 billion quickly mushroomed to $6 billion.

One the saddest stories to emerge from Floyd was the lack of flood insurance. Few people had it, and many had believed their homeowners insurance would cover damage from high water.


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  • cjw6105 Jul 29, 2011

    I remember all of these storms, but Hazel is #1 as far as I'm concerned. You can't compare 1950s dollars with 1990s dollars, and Hazel for all practical purposes was a Cat 5 when it made landfall on the SC/NC border in Oct of 1954. Hazel came through here like a freight train, moving at about 30mph with 100-mph winds, passing just east of Raleigh. And it didn't stop here; it caused havoc up the eastern seaboard with death and destruction all the way into Canada before returning to the Atlantic off Canada. Fran was bad here, but Hazel set the standard for NC hurricanes as far as I'm concerned.

  • dogeatdog Aug 1, 2008

    As a severe weather fanatic, I can say I was lucky enough to be here for Fran and Floyd. I live in Goldsboro. I remember we got 20 inches of rain from Floyd. After Fran, the whole city looked like it had been bombed. My dad used to tell me stories about Hazel. He was in his mid-teens and actually rode out part of the storm in a tree, enjoying the swaying and such. His family was dirt poor, so for him that was fun. When I say dirt poor, they were DIRT POOR. Though I don't like the destruction and loss of lives from these storms, it is amazing to watch the raw power of a off as much energy as several atomic bombs. I chase t-storms around Wayne and surrounding next goal is to catch a Category 3 or higher along the coast one time. Thanks for this article WRAL..I'm sure I'll read it several times over :).

  • FromClayton Aug 1, 2008

    interesting article. i hope thats it for a while.

    The only good thing about Fran is we learned how to make "fran burgers".... Take everything in your freezer that is thawing due to no power, add all the frozen veggies you have because they won't make it much longer, mix it together into burger shaped objects. Throw it onto the grill and taadddaaaa. You've got something called Fran burgers. Repeat for Floyd.

  • Stormy13 Aug 1, 2008

    I was just 5 when Hazel came through Raleigh so I don't remember very much regarding that hurricane. Now Fran was a much different story, remember her very well! Listening to those roaring winds, falling trees and branches hitting the roof all night, no thunder or lightening, just winds and heavy rain. Don't want to ever go through that again.

  • ecumuse Aug 1, 2008

    Very interesting article. Living through Floyd, I can confirm that it was an absolute nightmare. I saw firsthand the aftermath of Floyd on Princeville, Tarboro, and Greenville. Some sights were horrific-dead animals, entire cemeteries exhumed by flood waters, houses on top of cars, destitute families that lost everything they own- will stay burned in my mind forever. I have never seen anything like it and hope I never do again!

  • Counting Beans Aug 1, 2008

    Lived in NC all my life, and was in Greenville for Dennis/Floyd. The flooding down east was absolutely unbelievable....but my Dad, who grew up and lived in Little Washington during Hazel (and who has lived here his entire life as well) will say that Hazel was hands down the scariest storm he has ever seen...

  • Chill Will Aug 1, 2008

    My grandad built a house at Topsail, in 1954 and Hazel wiped it out. Rebuilt in 1955 and Donna came along and knocked it down again. Rebuilt a third time and it still stands today.

  • Goalieman Aug 1, 2008

    The most destructive Hurricane?

    Gov. Mike Easley! Does that count?

  • megathrasher Aug 1, 2008

    "It's interesting that 3 out of the top 5 have occurred since 1989"

    Even more fascinating is the fact that none of the top 5 have occurred since 1999.

  • tgw Aug 1, 2008

    Well done -WRAL. You've done an excellent job with all of this "stuff" on hurricaines. Yes, Hazel might have been worse, but we'll never have another Hazel as she's been retired.

    Fran and Floyd bring back vivid memories as a resident of Clayton. No water or power for 6 days after Fran. Crazy people crossing flooded bridges after Floyd. Remembering our church basement being full of relief supplies after Floyd. My scouts were there to pack and load for delivery down east.

    What memories!! Let's all pray that we do not experience these memories again for a long time.

    Again, good job WRAL. Thank you WRAL for being there when we need you - and when we don't as well.