The Hurricane Hall of Fame
Soon after the U.S. Weather Bureau began giving women's names to hurricanes in 1953, a spate of record-breaking storms ravaged the Carolina coast, including six really big ones in seven years.
Hurricane Hazel was the fiercest of them all, and she ran in the thick of a pack that ravaged the coastline from 1954 through the end of the decade. Things calmed down considerably in the '60s but by then the Carolina coast had earned itself a catchy new nickname: Hurricane Alley.
Every one of these ladies devised her own unique strategy, usually some combination of wind and flood damage coupled with original travel plans. They seemed to do their worst when they stayed on or near the water and most of them chose to keep their eyes on the coast, which allowed them to pick up ammunition in their right quadrants and hurl it ashore with their left quadrants. Typically they lost their gusto when they wandered too far inland - everyone, that is, except Hazel. Somehow she made a 2,000-mile overland trek from the Caribbean to Canada without losing one ounce of her legendary fury.
Before they became women, major storms had names more descriptive of their time and place: Cuba Hurricane of 1811, Santa Ana Storm of 1825, Great Wind of 1885, Halloween Storm of 1899. In 1979 the World Meteorological Organization began including men's names and international names in their hurricane rosters, and it also instituted the practice of retiring the really big names - Hazel, Camille and Katrina - in the same spirit that the NFL retires jersey numbers.
Only in the second half of the 20th century have we had anything like consistent data on such storm elements as wind velocity and storm surge levels. Early anemometers unfailingly blew away in gale-force gusts, gone with the wind they were designed to measure. Now we have the Saffir-Simpson scale used to rank hurricane categories from one to five, based on a combination of wind and tide factors.
A category one storm consists of winds 74 to 95 mph with surges of four to five feet, category two has winds of 96 to 110 mph with surges from six to eight feet, category three has winds of 111 to 130 mph with surges from nine to 12 feet, category four has winds of 131 to 155 mph with surges of 13 to 18 feet, and category five is 155 mph and above with surges greater than 18 feet. Despite that Hurricane Alley nickname, North Carolina has never seen a category five. Fives have so far confined themselves to Florida and Texas.
Camille (1969) was a category five, Hazel (1954) was a category four, Fran (1996) was a category three, and Diana (1984) was a category two.
Big blasts from the past
It seems relatively unscientific to assign a storm designation such as "really bad" to hurricanes that blew Carolina's doors off prior to the category system, but that is certainly a kinder term than many might apply to the hurricane season of 1899. In August, a storm front by the name of San Ciriaco (a nod to its Puerto Rican origins) arrived to decimate Diamond City and Shackleford Banks and devastate Ocracoke Island and Hatteras Village. Residents likened it unto the circles of hell depicted in Dante's Inferno, and some thought the storm was God's punishment for allowing dancing on Sunday.
Subsequent hurricanes often take advantage of already-saturated fields and streams to deliver the second of a one-two punch, and that was the evil plan of the Halloween Storm of 1899. After striking the Brunswick Beaches and wiping out all of Southport, the demon winds flew north to deal devastating blows to Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington. At the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History a plexiglass model, divided in half, shows the oceanfront structures that were standing prior to 1899 on one side and the buildings that now line the shore on the other side. Among the significant casualties were the Ocean View Hotel, a public open-air pavilion, the Carolina Yacht Club and the Atlantic Yacht Club.
Another one-two punch came along in August and September of 1933, the first one crossing the north end of the Outer Banks and the second striking the Pamlico Coast and moving up the coast. The second one blew all the water out of the Albemarle Sound and dropped it into the river basins of the Neuse and the Pamlico. New Bern suffered the worst flood in its history, as did many small down-east villages of that region that were already in bad shape due to The Great Depression.
The Lower Cape Fear Region is not likely to forget the 1944 hurricane season, with a season opener that ripped through Southportand Carolina Beach. Roughly 10,000 people were evacuated via army trucks and amphibious vehicles, and Carolina Beach bore the brunt of 30-foot waves that completely destroyed its popular boardwalk. And that was just the first of the pair.
The second one was given a name, so as not to be confused with the first. It was the Great Atlantic Hurricane of '44, and it is New Englanders who pronounce that name with fear and trembling. It passed just offshore along the Carolinas and slammed into Long Island, New York, where lots of top-dollar real estate stood waiting to be reduced to rubble. On Ocracoke Island, once again the sound met the ocean somewhere at the middle of the island, and residents opened their doors in an attempt to keep their houses in place. Afterward they found fish trapped beneath their furniture. On up the coast, the storm sucked the sound dry and then spat the water back from Hatteras to Nags Head, forever reshaping that slender and fragile land mass.
So the wind and water was kicking up pretty much every ten to 30 years or so, which in no way prepared North Carolinians for the nonstop action of the 1950s.