Hurricane Hazel was the strongest land-falling hurricane to hit our area in recorded meteorological history. But, I also want to remind you that it was in fact the last wide reaching strong hurricane, period! In other words, not since 1954 have we had such a widespread strong hurricane hit the area. Even though hurricane Fran was technically a category 3 storm upon landfall, considered strong by definition, Fran did not bring widespread category 3 conditions. The main brunt of Fran hit Pender County beach communities, unlike Hazel, which brought widespread destruction and category 3 and 4 conditions to a very large area. My point? We haven’t seen a big one in a long time. Don’t let your guard down because you think we’ve been through a major hurricane lately…we haven’t!
Now that I got that off my chest, let’s move on to the subject at hand. Hurricane Hazel began just east of the Windward Islands, near Grenada, on October 5, 1954. Hazel moved generally west to west-northwest through the central Caribbean before turning north and crashing into Haiti on October 12th. Haiti was devastated. Winds reached 125 mph over parts of the region. Hazel then moved through the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba. The mountainous terrain of Haiti weakened Hazel substantially. However, with warm ocean waters to feed off, plus a large high pressure system in the upper atmosphere providing light winds, little shear, and a system to “evacuate” heat from the storm, Hazel regained strength very quickly. Hazel continued north and then northwest, crossing the entire Bahama Island chain as it gained strength. Upon reaching the latitude of about Daytona Beach, the storm turned north and then a bit north-northeast and headed straight for our area. Hazel became a full category four storm (131-155 mph sustained winds) upon making landfall near the South Carolina and North Carolina border between 9:30 and 10:00 A.M. on the 15th.
The strongest and most destructive part of hurricanes is the right front quadrant, the very part that swept ashore in Brunswick and New Hanover counties, and to a slightly lesser extent, Pender County.
The greatest storm surge in North Carolina’s history was measured at Calabash; some 18 feet. Additionally, it struck at the exact time of the highest lunar tide of the year—the full moon of October.
Winds estimated to be up to 150 mph hit Holden Beach, Calabash, and Little River Inlet. Winds of 98 mph were measured in Wilmington, and were estimated to reach 125 mph at Wrightsville Beach, and 140 mph at Oak Island. Winds at Carolina and Kure Beaches also were estimated to have reached 125-130 mph.
As Hazel continued inland, incredibly, winds gusted to near 110 mph in Fayetteville, and nearly 100 mph in Raleigh and several locations as far north as Virginia.
The lowest air pressure recorded was 27.70 inches, near the mouth of the Cape Fear. The storm weakened slowly as it continued through Virginia and eventually all the way north into Ontario, Canada. As a matter of fact, it was only about 12 hours after landfall that Hazel began merging with a non-tropical low pressure area near Buffalo, New York!
Due to its quick movement, rainfall was not as heavy as in some slower moving storms. Generally, the heaviest rain fell to the west of the eye track. Four to six inches of rain were all that fell in southeast North Carolina. Some locally heavier amounts fell in the western Sandhills and Piedmont. Very little rain fell over eastern North Carolina.
More specifically, the south facing beaches of Brunswick County took the brunt of Hazel’s fury; virtually every structure was washed away or damaged. At Long Beach, of the 357 buildings which existed, 352 were destroyed.
Flooding along the Cape Fear River in Wilmington reached its highest level ever. Damage was mostly wind related, but along the waterfront, significant flood damage was reported.
In Carolina Beach, 14 blocks of the town were under water at one point.
A storm surge of 12 feet struck Wrightsville Beach, destroying 89 buildings and damaging another 155.
At New Topsail Beach, 210 of the 230 houses were destroyed.