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How Hurricane Hazel Hit North Carolina With a Destructive Punch in 1954

A dozen hurricanes have hit North Carolina since Hurricane Hazel swept ashore as a Category 4 storm in 1954, but none have been as severe.

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Christine Hauser
, New York Times

A dozen hurricanes have hit North Carolina since Hurricane Hazel swept ashore as a Category 4 storm in 1954, but none have been as severe.

Early this week, it appeared that Hurricane Florence could be as powerful, until forecasters downgraded it Wednesday afternoon to Category 3.

Florence is still surging toward North Carolina with winds of 125 mph and is expected to make landfall Friday, bringing catastrophic rain and flooding. Tropical storm-force winds were expected to arrive on land by Thursday morning.

The forecasts this week brought to mind Hazel, the last Category 4 storm to strike North Carolina. Arriving in October 1954, it was the deadliest and costliest storm of that year’s hurricane season.

“Those who remember Hazel tell remarkable stories,” Jay Barnes, a hurricane researcher, wrote on his website, where he compiles data and historical records of the state’s hurricanes dating to 1879.

“Residents in Ocean Isle, Wrightsville and Topsail Beaches saw homes ‘disappear’ into the pounding surf,” he wrote. “Extreme winds blasted farms and neighborhoods across the state, leaving behind mountains of trees, torn roofs, twisted powerlines, and debris.”

Hazel formed around Oct. 5, 1954, as a tropical cyclone, about 50 miles east of Grenada in the Windward Islands, according to the National Weather Service. It moved west over the Caribbean Sea and turned north, developing into a Category 4 storm by Oct. 9, the weather service said.

The storm crossed into western Haiti on Oct. 11 and left an estimated 400 to 1,000 people dead, the weather service said.

Hazel strengthened as it made its way over warm tropical waters, and early on Oct. 15, it made landfall near Calabash, North Carolina, near the border with South Carolina.

Barnes wrote that Hurricane Hazel was the most violent storm of its kind to hit North Carolina — so far. An 18-foot storm surge swept away houses, and a record tidal surge crushed homes or swept them into nearby marshes, he said.

The storm’s winds reached an estimated 150 mph, some of the highest ever measured in the state. Gusts on beaches in Brunswick County topped 140 mph, and winds ranged from 110 to 120 mph in Fayetteville, Goldsboro and Kinston, according to Barnes’ records.

Nineteen people were killed in North Carolina and several hundred more were injured, the weather service said. Up to 15,000 homes were destroyed and another 39,000 were damaged. Damages rose to $136 million, according to Barnes’ data.

The official report from the Weather Bureau in Raleigh, the state capital, said that “all traces of civilization on the immediate waterfront between the state line and Cape Fear were practically annihilated.”

Hurricane Hazel’s destructive punch was not confined to North Carolina. It headed into Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and New York, with wind gusts in some places near 100 mph, the weather service said. In southern Manhattan, a peak gust of 113 mph was recorded.

The New York Times reported on Oct. 18, 1954, three days after Hazel made landfall, that it had cut a 200-mile-wide “path of destruction” through 10 states and the District of Columbia, even making its way into Canada. The known death toll by that date was 146 people — 90 in the United States and 56 in Canada.

The Associated Press reported in a dispatch, published by The Asheville Citizen-Times on Oct. 17, that Hurricane Hazel was “one of the worst continental blows of the century.”

“Across a dozen eastern seaboard states earlier the storm had left jagged rubble where trim homes once stood,” according to the AP story. “Floods also plagued parts of the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and New York. Firemen and volunteers risked their lives time and again to pluck struggling flood victims from the swirling waters around Toronto. Some lost their lives in the selfless effort.”

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