From Hazel to Florence: History of Carolinas shaped by hurricanes

Looking back at major SC hurricanes

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - The Carolinas are no stranger to hurricanes, with storms like Hazel, Hugo, Floyd and Florence shaping the history of the region.

Hurricane Hazel made a direct hit on northern Horry County on Oct. 15, 1954. With winds up to 150 mph, storm surge reached 20 feet in some parts of the Carolinas and devastated beachfront communities.

"The houses were toppled over. The whole house was gone but everything was sitting on the mantle, hadn't been touched," said Dorothy McDonald, who survived hurricanes Hazel and Hugo.

A 1954 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states "every pier in a distance of 170 miles of the coastline was demolished."

In Garden City, all but three of the 275 buildings were damaged. In Myrtle Beach, it is estimated nearly 80 percent of oceanfront houses and motels were destroyed, leaving the opportunity for investors to rebuild and transform the city into the resort town it is today.

"There were limbs down, trees down. You can't get over seeing devastation like that,” said Joshua Chesson, a Myrtle Beach survivor of Hurricane Hugo.

Hurricane Hugo made landfall just north of Charleston as a Category 4 hurricane on Sept. 22, 1989.

"A fireman came to the door and he said, 'We're asking everyone to leave,' and I said, 'I'm not scared. We've sat through a lot of these.' And he said, 'Well ma'am, how many people live in this house, so we know how many bodies to look for?'" said multiple hurricane survivor Caroline Carmichael.

As it turned out, Carmichael, her family and her home were all safe. Others, however, weren't as lucky.

Entire homes washed more than a block inland. Others were leveled, piers were destroyed and 27 South Carolinians were left dead.

Hurricane Hugo led to changes in how Horry County deals with these disasters, including new shelter locations and improved evacuation routes.

Hurricane Floyd made landfall near Cape Fear, N.C. the morning of Sept. 16, 1999 as a Category 2 storm. It brought record flooding to the east coast.

"The floods began to come and it was just awful," said Judy Riddle, whose home was damaged in Floyd. Even though the hurricane moved through the area quickly, torrential rain fell through much of Horry County. Some areas saw between 15 and 20 inches.

The rain led to some of the worst flooding for the Waccamaw River at the time, cresting more than 17 feet in some places.

At the time, the flooding was some of one of the worst the county has ever seen and helped prepare the county for what was to come.

"I never thought in my lifetime I'd be sitting here telling you we need to evacuate zones A, B and C," said Randy Webster, director of Horry County Emergency Management.

This time last year, thousands were preparing for Hurricane Florence.

Band after band of the slow-moving storm moved through the area on Sept. 14, 2018, bringing record storm surge in North Carolina and record-breaking rainfall all across the Carolinas.

A weather station in Loris recorded 24 inches of rain, setting a new state record for the most rain from a tropical storm or hurricane.

When the rain stopped, the danger was just beginning.

In Robeson County, the Lumber River crested at a historic 25.4, closing a 33-mile stretch of Interstate 95 for days. All the water moved downstream.

With the Waccamaw River not expected to crest for several days after, people - including many just returning from being evacuated - were preparing for flooding.

"A lot of people were just getting back in, just getting things redone, just getting to a new normal. And then we were completely wiped out," said Nichols Mayor Lawson Battle.

The river crested on Sept. 16 at a record-breaking 22.1 feet, leaving the town of Nichols completely underwater. From the air, not a dry piece of land could be seen.

Even a year later, people are still rebuilding the nearly 1,000 homes and businesses lost.

Copyright 2019 WMBF. All rights reserved.