Oral History – Brenda Coffey – Part 6: ‘Hurricanes’

Compiled and edited by Ann Hertzler

Brenda Coffey

Brenda Coffey

Brenda finished high school and went to work at a finance company that required a business course through Harvard Business School . Then she worked for the town of Kure Beach and the State Department of Archives and History with archeologist, Al Honeycut. He was in charge of Ft. Fisher museum and writing a master’s degree thesis. That was quite a bit of fun. She worked for the Health Department from 1963 to 1969, first in the clinics and then with Medicare.

When she started with the health department, nurses were not paid for making home health house calls, but when Medicare was started, nurses had to be paid for home visits. The nurses were not happy about making a charge to patients. Brenda didn’t work for about 11 years and then went back to work in a permanent part-time position for the Health Department about 1980.

Then in 1986, when their daughter went off to college, she decided to work full-time with New Hanover County Emergency Management till she retired in 2000. Emergency Management was tasked with coordinating local, state and federal resources during hurricanes and other natural or technological disasters. This was definitely an interesting job—never boring!

The first hurricane she remembers is August, 1944. There were no warnings issued for hurricanes in 1944. A neighbor came to the house and told her mother and grandmother (her father and grandfather were working) that a hurricane was coming and the last bus was leaving the beach in an hour. Her mother and grandmother threw some essentials in a bag, got Brenda, and caught that bus into Wilmington . As soon as the hurricane passed they went back to the beach. The oceanfront house they were renting had very little damage, but others were not so fortunate.

The next large storm she remembers was Hurricane Hazel on October 15, 1954 . Her father, mother, brother, grandmother and grandfather were at Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill where her grandfather was undergoing some tests. Since there were no storms on the horizon when they left the beach, Brenda was left with some friends (The Lillys who owned Lilly’s Cottages–now called Palm Air) and her best friend, Linda Lilly. A couple of days after Brenda’s family left town the weather started getting windy, cloudy and rainy.

Linda and Brenda thought it was great fun to get out in the rain after being in school all day. They went to the corner store and bought sodas, chips and candy bars, in case the storm got worse. They finally went to bed around 11:30 p.m. and around 2:00 a.m. Mr. Lilly woke them and said we had to evacuate the beach because a hurricane was to hit somewhere close to Kure Beach .

Brenda and the Lillys went into downtown Wilmington to the Custom House on the Cape Fear River for shelter. It was exciting to see the river rise almost to Front Street and the huge wharf rats running from under the docks.

v19NO6  June 2012 FINAL PDF-016Immediately after the storm they went back to the beach. The police had not had time to set up the road blocks when they returned.

There was a lot of damage! Many people lost their homes and businesses. Most of the losses were not insured. At this time there was no government agency available to help people recoup their losses. The Salvation Army and the American Red Cross did provide some assistance and neighbors that were fortunate enough to not have damage, provided as much as they could.

Brenda’s family was very worried about the events at the beach. The trip from Chapel Hill to the beach took them 8 hours. Trees were down across the road, some roads were flooded, and finding a gas station was hard. The electricity was off and whatever gas station they found had to use a hand pump. They also increased the price of the gas. Finally they made it to the old swing bridge into Carolina Beach.

The police had set up the roadblocks by then. The roadblocks were manned by police officers, firemen and volunteers. No one had passes or stickers identifying individuals that owned beach property—everyone knew each other.

Traffic blocks were set up on the north side of the swing bridge and on Dow Road into Kure Beach. The National Guard was deployed to help guard the entrance to the beach towns and to protect the damaged property. Kure Beach has certainly experienced other storms but Hazel was by far the worst.