Hazel was no lady 66 years ago

Posted 10/14/20

October 15 this year is a Thursday.

Sixty-six years ago, it was a Friday ... and what a Friday it was.

Maybe it’s human nature, a natural reaction to compare things. Fishermen like to catch …

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Hazel was no lady 66 years ago

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October 15 this year is a Thursday.

Sixty-six years ago, it was a Friday ... and what a Friday it was.

Maybe it’s human nature, a natural reaction to compare things. Fishermen like to catch the most fish; baseball players to hit the most home runs; your golfing buddy to have a better score than you. Pretty much anything that can be compared will be.

Does that go for hurricanes?

Southeastern coastal states from Texas to Virginia have had their share through the years and many have been bad; some have been horrific. In 1900, a hurricane claimed more than 6,000 lives when it washed over the flat coastline city of Galveston, Texas, making it the biggest natural disaster in U.S. history. This year’s track record for storms has already run through the English alphabet and moved on into the Greek. And officially “hurricane season” doesn’t end until Nov. 30. The battered folks in Louisiana are ready for that day.

But in North Carolina history there is one hurricane that still evokes shudders — at least to folks of a certain age group — and it’s not Fran or Floyd, bad as they were.

It’s Hazel.

It used to be all of them had female names. The old joke was, “Why are there no hurricanes with male names?” And the answer was “Have you ever heard of a himicane?”

Often, folks who live through them don’t talk about them, sort of like combat veterans most of the time don’t relive those times.

For a big chunk of North Carolina, Oct. 15, 1954, brought Hurricane Hazel. It — or she — hit the shore near the border between the two Carolinas at around 6 in the morning with 150-plus mile per hour winds as the storm itself was zooming along at about 50 miles per hour.

That was the days before Doppler weather forecasts that ran 25 hours a day and TV weather folks stood out in howling winds to make sure we knew a storm had hit or was coming. Folks on the coast could tell a storm was on the way but they didn’t know what kind of storm — or how bad it would be.

When Hazel was all over, 19 Tar Heels had died, property damage ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars and the path of destruction went as far north as Pennsylvania, New York and Canada. Entire communities were battered and washed into the sea. There was no more Long Beach, today’s Oak Island.

Back home in Chatham County, school officials decided the safest place for youngsters was at their homes. There were no emergency alert systems; many parents were at work; school buses roamed the roads in the height of the storm, often having to take alternative routes because of the trees blocking roads. Some couldn’t make it through, returning to school buildings, which were probably the safest places to be.

On that Friday, the storm came through Raleigh in the afternoon. My father had left his insurance company office in Durham to pick me up at the Gov. Morehead School for the Blind, where I spent a year before eye doctors figured out they could correct my limited vision.

We were huddled in the parlor of a massive brick dorm; the sky was as black as a coal mine (and I’ve been in one) and the giant oak trees seemed to be bending double. And the wind ... weather stations reported gusts in the capital city at 90 miles per hour. It was a hairy trip back to Pittsboro.

Since that day, forecasting has improved greatly and warnings lead to preparedness. And since that day I’ve lived through a few more in my inland setting. Fran was an all-nighter that claimed trees, fences and vehicles.

It’s bad enough as an adult but there’s something especially frightening about being 6 years old and seeing your world turning upside down.

When you pay your bills this month, send a check to the Red Cross or Samaritan’s Purse or the Salvation Army or some other reputable relief agency for the victims of those natural disasters.

There are still lots of 6-year-olds out there.

Bob Wachs is a native of Chatham County and retired long-time managing editor of the Chatham News/Chatham Record, having written a weekly column for more than 30 years. During most of his time with the newspapers, he was also a bi-vocational pastor and today serves Bear Creek Baptist Church for the second time as pastor.


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