Tomorrow a devastating hurricane is expected to strike the southeastern coast of North Carolina. It brings to mind my own experiences in that area some 64 and 74 years ago.
My family had moved to Carolina Beach in May or June of 1938. Over the next six years we had a few severe nor’easters, but no storms of great consequence. The Cape Fear region was not immune from hurricanes, of course. The cape juts out into the Atlantic, and in times past the area had been severely battered. Indeed, a hundred or more years before this time a hurricane had washed across the lower peninsula and created a second mouth to the Cape Fear River, causing considerable hazard to normal navigation but making things much easier for shallow drafted blockade runners during the Civil War. After that war, the Corps of Engineers closed this second channel.
In late summer of 1944 I experienced my first hurricane. My cousin Earle Rives was visiting us at that time, and I remember that he and I stood on our attic balcony and watched the waves breaking over oceanfront buildings. Some cottages were destroyed up and down the beach, but the worst damage was to the strand. Up until that time Carolina Beach had a rather wide beach. After the ’44 hurricane it appeared that the width of the strand had been cut in half, making us an easy prey for future storms.
The future arrived in the form of Hurricane Hazel in October 1954, less than a month after my return from military service in Korea. When the storm warnings came, I wanted to stick it out, but my wife Ann persuaded me that we should leave the beach. My parent’s home was about a city block from the ocean strand and fronted on Masenboro sound. We loaded my mother, father, and our infant son Sandy Jr. into our car and drove several miles toward Wilmington. We spent the night at a friend’s home on the far side of the inland waterway. The next morning, I drove back toward Carolina Beach alone and looked upon a scene of total devastation. Hazel was classified as a category 4 hurricane, with sustained winds up to 130 mph and gusts up to 160. The ocean and the sound had come together, and I could see my parents’ house completed surrounded by and partially immersed in water. A day or so later, when the water finally receded, everything was an absolute mess. There had been three or four feet of water in the house. My father’s automobile had water up to the top of the windshield. Many homes had been totally destroyed, and everyone was in a state of shock.
There was no such thing as hurricane insurance in those days. The existing policies clearly stated that there was no coverage for high water damage “whether driven by wind or not”. When your home had completely disappeared it was rather difficult to say what part was wind and what part was water, but everyone at the beach knew that ocean waves had caused most of the damage.
People are resilient, and within days the repairs and rebuilding were underway. But Mother Nature wasn’t finished with us yet. In 1955 Carolina Beach experienced three more hurricanes – their names were Connie, Diane, and Ione. That was four hurricanes within a period of less than 12 months. For some time after that the banks would no longer loan money for home improvements at Carolina Beach. It was almost as if the area was accursed.
To be perfectly honest, Carolina Beach never fully recovered from those terrible storms of the 1950s, and it did not help that during the following decades the area was struck again and again, earning for the Cape Fear region the nickname “Hurricane Alley”. Fortunately for that region, at the end of the century the hurricanes seem to shift their aim toward another part of the coast – at least for a time.
This week the winds returned.