Hurricane Hazel – A Special but Evil Storm

By Nancy Gadzuk

hurricane-hazel-1954Steve Pfaff of the National Weather Service spoke at the History Center’s October 17, 2016 meeting. Originally Steve was scheduled to make a presentation on Hurricane Hazel. And then Hurricane Matthew happened on October 9th.

steve-pfaffDespite working long hours dealing with the aftermath of Matthew, Steve found the time to weave his original presentation on Hazel into a fascinating presentation that combined information on both Hurricanes Hazel (1954) and Matthew (2016).

paths-of-hurricanes-hazel-mathewHe began by sharing some information about Hurricane Hazel, a “special but evil storm.” Hazel became a Category 3 hurricane very quickly and killed over 1,000 people as it tore through Haiti, a pathway that Matthew would unfortunately follow as well.

He cautioned that we should not let radar fool us when determining how big a threat a hurricane may pose. Over-reliance on the Saffir-Simpson wind scale to determine hurricane strength and possible destructive effects has been problematic, especially with storms such as Hazel and Matthew, where storm surge and high water levels have been so destructive.

hurricane-hazel-impactsHe cited meteorologist Ryan Knapp’s apt example to show relative destructive impacts: I can breathe in 100 mile per hour winds, but I can’t breathe under 10 feet of water.

Hazel had what Steve called “good air”: high barometric pressure that allowed for a very large storm surge. High temperatures preceding the hurricane and a high lunar tide, along with unusually warm water temperature, all contributed to a powerful 18 foot storm surge that wiped out most of the oceanfront dwellings in Brunswick County.

byron-mooreByron Moore, long-time History Center member who lived in Carolina Beach during Hazel, shared some of his recollections of the storm and its aftermath. His family lived on Canal Drive and water went up to the speedometer of the car sitting in the driveway. He remembered seeing propane tanks floating down Canal Drive and 6 to 8 feet of sand on Carolina Beach Avenue North. Other audience members contributed their own memories of the devastation Hazel caused.

return-period-for-hurricanesSteve warned us that the return period for hurricanes along the North Carolina coast was 5 to 7 years. Also, since 1999 there have been five 500 to 1000 year flood events in the Southeast in case anyone has a notion to become complacent and let their insurance lapse.