MY FIRST NAGS HEAD HURRICANE: BARBARA, AUGUST 1953 (PART ONE)
Hurricanes are a fact of life on the Outer Banks but some are more memorable than others. In my case, since my first one remembered was experienced in 1953, it clearly became etched in my memory. Her name was Barbara and although the season for the big Cape Verde hurricanes was underway, Barbara originated in the southeast Bahamas. The storms which begin forming by August near the Cape Verde Islands are the most feared since they have the entire warm Atlantic basin to become stronger as they pass over. But any hurricane in the latter part of summer is to be concerning, for the waters which fuel the storms are at their warmest from August through October.
The prior Sunday, Dad made his usual journey back to Newport News for his medical practice during the work week, but we were surprised to find him turning in the driveway again on Tuesday evening. It was totally unexpected and Mom thought something was wrong back home.
“No, Honey,” he replied. “But didn’t you get the word there is a hurricane brewing and we are right in the potential zone for a solid hit? I was afraid if I didn’t come back now and it does hit, I wouldn’t be able to enter the county in the early clean-up phase.”
She gave him a big hug and kiss and said, “Well, then, it’s good you came back now and I guess that means you are starting your vacation time a little early. Good, and you’re also in time for dinner.”
Dad always took a couple of weeks off from his medical practice in August so he could join us for an extended period, above and beyond the weekend commutes. He loved the beach, sunny or stormy, so we knew he would get very involved in the goings on of the next couple of days.
Eating dinner, Dad explained what the weather forecasters had been telling and since we had no TV at the beach we were at the mercy of the radio and newspaper. Looking back now at the glut of information being foisted upon us daily, I think that might have been a very good thing.
Bright and early the next morning, Dad and I took a walk on the beach and noticed how calm, almost glassy the sea looked. It was eerily strange, yet on a regular cycle a large wave would come and crash on shore with a loud crack. I never saw that before. It certainly was a sign of something and our next-door neighbor, a native Outer Banker who rented out cottages, explained how it gave guidance to how far away the storm was. It also meant that at least for now the storm was headed in our direction.
When Dad and I got home and he told Mom she just looked at him and said with a wink, “I could have told you that. We were all raised with that knowledge.”
But she smiled at him and went back to listening to the weather forecast, after which the two of them decided to go and get some extra hurricane supplies. We children stayed home with assignments for preparation. We stored fresh water, checked all the latches and locks for the screen and exterior doors, got the hurricane lamps ready and put matches in one place where all could find them. We also made sure things in the downstairs garage were all well off the floor in the event of water coming over the rise. Dad had a drive-up ramp to give extra elevation to the car. We didn’t expect, however, that to be an issue.
When Mom and Dad returned from the store, we were loaded up on canned goods and other non-perishables, batteries and more lantern fuel. I loved the idea of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches whenever I wanted or Chef Boyardee. And our little sterno stove would even allow Mom and Dad to have coffee. Good, or else they would be grumpy.
The night was beautiful and clear as we walked down to the beach, yet we could feel the wind beginning to pick up from the south and reports indicated Barbara was heading for North Carolina. The last report that night said she would likely come ashore somewhere between Wilmington and Hatteras.
Thursday morning clearly showed the weather changing. Wind was gusty, the sea was building a heavy chop and the sky was very hazy before clouds starting streaming in from the south in the early afternoon. It was reported that Barbara would likely cross the narrow coastal beach strand somewhere between Morehead City and Ocracoke. And she did, south of Ocracoke and heading north northwest. Luckily, her winds had dropped below one hundred, but now they were calling for her to gradually turn north then north northeast, meaning that the brunt of the storm, northeast of the center, would be nearly a direct hit in our area. This would mean that storm surge would be significant and, of course, when the wind switched direction later from the other direction, all of the water pushed into the sound would have to try and escape back out, causing heavy sound side flooding.
By dark, we had hunkered down with the doors locked and we moved into the great room. Aunt Sylvia, Mom’s sister who lived just across the beach road, came to ride it out since Uncle Hal would be busy with some of the local men helping out in any emergencies. They would be using a surplus Navy duck to extricate anyone in danger if the need arose. That thing could motor on ground or water as conditions warranted.
Now Aunt Sylvia came to visit us regularly and it was not unusual to see her coming across the sand from the highway at night in the middle of a large thunderstorm. Amazingly, she was fearless in the flash of lightning, but had great fear of large windstorms. And with Hal out doing his duty, she decided she would rather be with us than stay alone. Besides, Uncle Hal built the cottage, now six years old like me in 1953, and she knew there was no safer abode on the beach than her sister’s summer cottage.
About ten, I was put to bed and I remember lying on my bunk bed and feeling a very gentle sway to the cottage as the winds were rapidly increasing. I wasn’t petrified, but I was concerned, for I didn’t know what to expect. And then, within thirty minutes of going to bed and unable to sleep, the power went out. Lying there in the dark with the cottage slightly swaying I could now hear the wind howling as the hurricane lamps came on, emitting a glow sufficient to get around in the dark. Mom and Sylvia were talking but I couldn’t hear the content. Was it about the storm? I wanted to know so I slipped quietly into the room and Sylvia saw me. Mom’s back was toward me.
“Come over here, Son,” Aunt Sylvia said. “What’s wrong? Can’t you sleep?”
Mom got up and hugged me and Sylvia suggested that she could sing me to sleep. She was a very devout Southern Baptist, had a great voice and also taught the Sunday school class I attended at the beach. And her Sunday school songs were very reassuring, so Mom told her to go ahead.
She walked with me back to the room, sat down and sang both “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Jesus Loves Me.” I fell asleep before she finished the second one, releasing my worries and finally resting.
I dreamed I was on a sailboat at sea. It was stormy and we were lost in the dark. The lightning was flashing but we staying safely on course when BAM! I awoke to the sound of something hitting the cottage and I could hear the sound of sea shells and pebbles washing underneath the cottage. Ocean water was now under the house.
Sitting up, it was beginning to get light and I heard noise in the great room. The sway was steady, the house was standing securely and Mom was laughing in the living room. What in the world could be so funny at a time like this? I got up, rubbed my eyes of sleep, and walked in.
There was Dad standing in beach walking shoes with the top half of a slicker and beach shorts instead of slicker pants. He was planning on walking outside to find out what caused the crash. Mom urged him to stay inside until the wind dropped more, or at least wear the rest of the slicker. But he was stubborn and he was going to do it his way. I was worried. Would he be okay?
PART 2: THE REST OF THE HURRICANE BARBARA STORY, TOMORROW