While Hurricane Matthew strengthened in the Caribbean Sea on Friday with models predicting it will turn north aimed along the East Coast by Sunday, it churned up old memories from a Havelock resident of one of the most devastating hurricanes to hit North Carolina.
Hurricane Hazel, Oct. 15, 1954, is the storm most of the older generation in North Carolina uses to gauge other storms. It was the deadliest and costliest hurricane to ever hit the North Carolina coast, according to the National Weather Service.
If weather models tracking Matthew hold up, it will be following a similar trail taken by Hazel 62 years ago. Though most long-range computer models keep Matthew off the Carolina coast, forecasters say it is too soon to know the storm’s exact path and impact on the East Coast.
Hazel moved westward over the Caribbean through Oct. 8, 1954, before sharply turning northward under the influence of an upper level low that was situated over the western Caribbean. Matthew, a category 2 hurricane, is expected to turn north Sunday, according to the weather service.
By Oct. 14, 1954, Hazel was a day away from the South Carolina/North Carolina state line.
George Griffin of Havelock was 27 and working at Cherry Point as Hurricane Hazel approached the coast. He was living in “Splinterville,” a government housing project across from the current Town Hall, with his wife and 2-year-old daughter.
Two days before Hurricane Hazel made landfall, Griffin and other residents of “Splinterville” were moved to one-story, cinderblock housing on Manteo Drive that was more sturdy, he said.
On Oct. 15, 150 mph winds battered the coast as Hazel came ashore at Calabash, bringing a storm surge of 18 feet to the area. Wilmington reported winds estimated at 125 mph at Wrightsville beach and 140 mph at Oak Island. A storm surge of more than 12 feet swept a large portion of the coastline, according to the National Weather Service.
“I remember the flooding we had,” Griffin said. “Havelock has improved over the years. But there was a lot of flooding then.”
Griffin said when he and his family returned home after the storm, he was surprised that their apartment was undamaged.
“I grew up around Greenville and we didn’t know anything about hurricanes in those days,” Griffin said. “It was just a new event to me.”
After Hurricane Hazel left North Carolina, Griffin said family members from Greenville came to visit him and they all drove to Atlantic Beach.
“We viewed the horrible damage done to the beach,” he said. There was erosion, houses collapsed, docks floating in the sound, just litter everywhere. I don’t know at that time if I had ever seen anything like it. It was just a … It was just a wreck.”
Brunswick County suffered the heaviest damage where most coastal dwellings were destroyed or severely damaged, according to the National Weather Service.
The Weather Bureau in Raleigh issued an official statement on how badly Hazel damaged the coast.
“... All traces of civilization on the immediate waterfront between the state line and Cape Fear were practically annihilated,” the statement said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, issued a report in December 1954 on the hurricanes during that year that said “every pier in a distance of 170 miles of coastline was demolished” due to Hurricane Hazel.
Tony Seamon and his father, owners of Sanitary Restaurant in Morehead City, drove to their restaurant during the hurricane and saved it by cutting holes in the floor to drain water from the building. The restaurant served as a feeding station after the storm, according to the National Weather Service.
Hurricane Hazel then swept up the Eastern Seaboard to Manhattan, N.Y., before killing 19 people, and injured several hundreds more in North Carolina. As many as 15,000 homes were destroyed and 39,000 damaged. The cost of damage in North Carolina and South Carolina was about $163 million, according to the National Weather Service.
Griffin, 89, said the year after Hurricane Hazel came through, three more hurricanes hit Havelock.
“We had a new house on a hill and it was just like there was an ocean around me,” he said. “And there were three in just a few weeks — bang, bang, bang. I don’t remember their names, but I remember it flooding each time.”
According to a report on the “Hurricanes of 1955” by the Weather Bureau Office in Miami, Fla., the three hurricanes that crossed the North Carolina coast that year within a six-week period between August and September were Connie, Diane and Ione.
With a hurricane like Matthew possibly heading up the coast, Griffin said it causes a certain amount of concern. If he learned anything from Hurricane Hazel, it was to be prepared, he said.
“I’ll be putting in staples we might need in case we can’t get to the store, buy some bread and do the best we can to prepare for it,” Griffin said. “I would not consider moving away unless things got really hectic and the governor required you to move. If it was left to me, I’d ride it out.”
David Glenn, meteorologist with the National Weather Service, Newport, said at 11 a.m. Friday that Matthew had strengthened into a category 3 hurricane with 115 mph sustained winds.
“It’s still several days out before we can get a handle on what will happen with Matthew,” Glenn said. “I would say go ahead and prepare for any system that might impact us.”