As a boy in 1954, I witnessed one such hurricane. While I was at home in Newport News, two blocks from the Hampton Roads when it hit and the remnant of the eye passed to our west, gusts over one hundred miles per hour were felt as our two-story home creaked and made popping sounds as it groaned under the high winds. We lost the huge center limb section of a massive cottonwood tree beside our garage which thankfully missed the garage and landed in the yard. Had it been something other than a softwood tree, it would have likely landed squarely on our house.
Probably the thing I remember the most was my Dad walking in the back door just before the huge gust which brought the large portion of that tree down. And it also broke the triple lock on the kitchen door which required our entire family to push the refrigerator against the door to keep it closed. Even then it slipped and shimmied along the way, requiring a constant watchful eye and a few strong backs.
When it was over, we had a new fort in the back yard, the limb structure of the tree, and were amazed at how fortunate we were regarding the exterior of the house. Excepting some missing shingles, a downed drainage spout and a few split sections of exterior wood, all else was well. The same can’t be said of some in the neighborhood with trees on the roof and blocked streets. But all pitched in to help and after several days without power before things returned to a partial normal.
Living next to a sloping field that ended at what was the beginning of Salter’s Creek, a tidal creek that ran westward, the field was turned into about a five-acre lake from the high tide which kept the rainwater from draining off. All with boats of any type enjoyed a day of paddling where it was normally high and dry and it made the tragic aspects of the storm forgotten to young people. And, amazingly, no one ran into any water moccasins in the floodwaters and no injuries were reported.
In Newport News, the ferocity was noted by the fact that four seamen drowned in the James River when the wind driven water sank a tugboat towing multiple barges. An unfinished ship under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding broke its moorings and floated freely until being pushed aground on the shore of the river. Lastly, the Customs House for the port lost its roof which landed in the street and for days thereafter you could hear the whine of chain saws removing tree debris.
A few weeks later, we had the opportunity to travel to Nags Head to check on the damage. Our cottage, Caroja, stood literally untouched despite the winds reaching one hundred and ten miles per hour. Beach erosion was significant, but it wasn’t cut out so much in deep swaths it was, rather, made flat with high tides coming up higher because of the lack of incline. With hindsight, however, I do believe that was better than the buildup of huge coastal dunes which seem to cause the deep cuts since the water can't get through. It wasn’t such a problem back then since the water could percolate out through the flats due to the land being empty and unpopulated. Most of the oceanfront buildings, unless very high, were also on stilts. Today is very different in many places.
We were, both with regard to our winter home and our summer cottage, very fortunate with our outcome. But the good people to the south, west of Cape Fear down the coast nearly to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina weren’t so lucky. Long Beach, a coastal town located there lost all but five of the three hundred and fifty-seven buildings in the beach town, including the road, due to an eighteen-foot storm surge. And with winds approaching one hundred and forty miles per hour, it was the strongest wind and largest storm surge the state has ever seen. Nineteen people were killed in North Carolina and another twelve in Virginia and the storm, continuing on toward Toronto, Canada as a post-tropical storm, created havoc from wind and water the entire way.
So, the moral of the true story is this: if you think the threat of hurricane season is over, hold off on the celebrations. For like Hazel, which formed very close to the Caribbean and not on the other side of the tropical Atlantic, things can change in a flash. Keep your guard up, but pray that we might be spared for this year.