Hurricane Hazel

Published 8:57 am Friday, September 5, 2014

by Archie Howell

Between entertainment shows, newscasts on our black and white television have indicated that a dramatic event is in the works. Somewhere to our south, beyond our shores, beyond islands that I didn’t know existed, a storm has formed. A hurricane named Hazel is rapidly making a name for itself and is threatening to come all the way to Virginia. I’ve never seen a hurricane and know little about them.

I know that my mother is very afraid of storms in general and when a summer thunderstorm approaches, we are all sequestered in the front room until it passes. Windows are closed and people are required to sit down and be still. Conversation is hushed if there is conversation at all. Mostly it’s just a waiting game for those of us in the house. For those outside or in the fields, taking any shelter available is appropriate.

I don’t really understand the danger and am generally excited by thunderstorms and weather phenomenon. I love the bright, piercing radiance of lightning; I love the feel of the sound of thunder. I like when the earth seems to tremble and cower from the blatant display of natural power. I try to stand a little closer to the window; sometimes I get away with it. Such actions do not engender peace and tranquility with my mother.

I’m always happy to take cover under an open shelter. I like being a little closer to the action, a little more involved, a little more open to the sights and sounds of Mother Nature.

Hazel is mentioned every day in our newscasts. Mostly it’s a passing remark, just a couple of words at the end as a reminder that something is still afoot far to the south. Local weathermen don’t mention it in our area forecast. But it is mentioned. The storm is predicted to run north and stay offshore along the East Coast.

But then, it doesn’t. The storm picks up speed, increases in size and heads for the coastline of North Carolina. By late Thursday, Oct. 14, 1954, news people and government officials are scrambling to get out the warning. Many residents of beach communities have not updated their information and are going about their leisure life. Some news of the devastation in Haiti have made it to the airwaves, but that’s a world away and most folks ignore the distant voices. After all, it seems OK here.

Friday, I do not go to school. The warnings from our radio and television say our schools are closed. Friday morning, hurricane Hazel slams ashore just north of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, packing 140 mile-an-hour winds. The wind pushes a storm surge of 18 feet across the coastline just to the north. New estuaries and inlets are created, most dwellings disappear, sand dunes are leveled and shifted. In the space of a few hours, most buildings and recognizable features of a 50-mile-wide swath of North Carolina vanish.

Hazel picked up speed as it left the Bahamas; the eye is now moving at 60 miles an hour. We gather in our front room and wait. I mostly stand by a side window and watch. Without the familiar thunder and lightning, we really don’t know what to expect. The day wears on and trees begin to bend. A misty, warm, cloud like atmosphere reduces horizontal visibility. We can hear the wind swirling, twisting through the trees in our front yard. It doesn’t seem to be as rainy as we thought it would be. The wind starts, builds and diminishes in a couple of hours.

Hazel’s eye moves north, crossing into Virginia around Danville; we experience peripheral winds and relatively little damage. Franklin and my world are unscathed. A few downed trees and limbs remain for the memory. According to rumor (maybe fact) the wind speed and weathervane broke at the airport in Washington. Ninety mile-an-hour wind gusts continue to wreak havoc all the way to Toronto, Canada, Friday night.

Our television news casts are suddenly full of Hazel and her wrath. Pictures of coastal damage take their place alongside floods in Toronto. The landfall time in North Carolina coincided with high tide, and the shoreline, along with coastal communities, changed dramatically. The eye moved directly over Washington, D.C., with wind gusts of 98 mph, sustained wind of 78 mph. Heavy rainfall and river flooding caused extensive damage in Canada.

Hazel moves on and vanishes in the cold of northern Canada. She will become known as one of the most damaging storms of the 20th century.

I return to my school routine, not greatly disturbed. I will not forget how the trees in our yard bent and waved with the wind. I love weather.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at