HURRICANE HAZEL: A legendary storm for the Grand Strand

HURRICANE HAZEL: A legendary storm for the Grand Strand
Damage in Myrtle Beach (Source: National Weather Service)

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – Hurricane Hazel made landfall in the Carolinas on October 15th 1954 and was the deadliest and costliest hurricane of the 1954 Atlantic hurricane season. The storm caused as many as 600 direct fatalities and $2.8 billion in damage in the United States alone.

Hazel developed as a tropical storm on Oct. 5, 1954, in the central Caribbean Sea. The storm intensified into a hurricane and moved west through the Caribbean Sea for three days, then turned northeast from Oct. 9 to Oct. 11, crossing Haiti on Oct. 12. Hazel strengthened to a Category 3 hurricane on Oct. 13 and turned north over the Bahamas, moving closed to the southeastern United States. On Oct. 15, Hazel intensified to a Category 4 hurricane before making landfall near the North Carolina/South Carolina border. Hazel continued moving north across North Carolina and Virginia, pushing into Pennsylvania and New York during the afternoon and evening of Oct. 15. The weakened remnants of the storm moved into Canada on Oct. 16.

Hazel's damage in the Grand Strand.
Hazel's damage in the Grand Strand. (Source: National Weather Service)

Hazel made landfall very near Little River. The storm was officially a Category 4 at landfall, with sustained winds of 140 miles per hour, with higher gusts. The hurricane brought a storm surge of over 18 feet in many places across northeast South Carolina and southeast North Carolina, wreaking havoc all across the Grand Strand. The storm’s surge was made worse by the fact that the hurricane coincided with the highest lunar tide of the year.

The strongest winds from the storm ripped through the coastline between Myrtle Beach and Cape Fear, North Carolina with wind speed estimates of 130 to 150 miles per hour at Holden Beach, Oak Island, Calabash, Little River Inlet and Wrightsville Beach. The Myrtle Beach Air Force Base had a wind gust of 126 mph. Areas as far inland as Fayetteville, North Carolina recorded gusts as high as 110 miles per hour. Hazel’s highest measured gusts topped 98 mph in Wilmington, 110 mph in Fayetteville and 90 mph in Raleigh. Across inland North Carolina, Goldsboro, and Kinston all recorded wind speeds of 120 mph. Hazel’s forward speed neared 55 mph by landfall and allowed the storm to retain its intensity farther inland than most storms. The hurricane drove north through Raleigh, Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C. within a four-hour period, and made it all the way to southeastern Canada within 12 hours of landfall.

Damage in Myrtle Beach
Damage in Myrtle Beach (Source: National Weather Service)

When Hazel made landfall at Little River, its deadly storm surge and intense winds reached their peak. At Myrtle Beach, hurricane-force winds began round 6:00 A.M. and continued to intensify until the eye reached the coast at 9:20 A.M. The Grand Strand was battered by winds estimated at 130 mph and waves that crested at thirty feet. Hardest hit were locations near the point of landfall, which included Garden City, North Myrtle, Windy Hill, Cherry Grove, and Ocean Drive. Throughout this stretch of coastline, storm surge levels ranged between fourteen and seventeen feet.

After landfall, Hurricane Hazel continued on its northward track across North Carolina and Virginia during the morning of October 15. Hazel continued to push northward across the Mid Atlantic states, into Pennsylvania and New York, and eventually into southeastern Ontario and southwestern Quebec on the 15th and 16th.

Storm surge from Hurricane Hazel was tremendous. Brunswick County, North Carolina suffered the greatest damage, where most coastal dwellings were either damaged or completely destroyed. In Long Beach, North Carolina, only five of 357 buildings were left standing along the coast. It is estimated that nearly 80 percent of oceanfront houses and motels from Garden City to the state line were destroyed by the storm. Residents who rode the storm out described waves breaking over the second story of ocean front homes and motels.

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