Hurricane Florence made landfall on the North Carolina coast Friday morning, bringing powerful winds along with forecasts warning of “life-threatening” storm surge and rainfall.
More than 60 years ago, North Carolina was preparing for an even more dangerous storm: Hurricane Hazel. The devastating 1954 hurricane is the only recorded Category 4 storm to hit the state.
The storm was the fourth major hurricane of the 1954 hurricane season. It formed Oct. 5 near the island of Granada in the southern Caribbean, left more than a thousand dead (mostly in Haiti) and caused over $3 billion (in 2012 dollars) in damage from the Caribbean to Canada. Hazel was originally expected to take on a more northeasterly track and stay offshore, but instead it raced northward at speeds up to 60 mph. It spanned the distance from the Carolina coastline to Ontario in just 12 hours.
At the time, the Raleigh, N.C., weather office stated that as a result of Hazel, “all traces of civilization on the immediate waterfront between the state line and Cape Fear were practically annihilated.”
Hazel’s official 98 mph wind gust, at 5:05 p.m. on Oct. 15, 1954, at National Airport, is still the highest ever recorded for Washington, D.C. Sustained winds were recorded at 78 mph (Category 1).
Upon reaching the vicinity of New York, a weakening Hazel interacted with a potent cold front approaching from the west and was suddenly transformed into a ferocious, extratropical, mid-latitude storm. This, on the same day (Oct. 15) that it had wreaked havoc in the Carolinas, Virginia, D.C. and Pennsylvania as a major hurricane.
Borrowing a term from the crippling 1991 New England Halloween tempest, Hurricane Hazel seemed to be the “perfect storm” of 1954, as it became “extratropical”under somewhat similar circumstances, although not at sea. (See Steve Tracton’s 2008 Capital Weather Gang post on the differences between tropical storms/hurricanes and extratropical storms.)
Taking note of Hazel’s “rebirth,” Environment Canada chose to make an official distinction between the storm’s two phases, calling it Hazel I until the early evening of Oct. 15 and Hazel II from late evening on. Hazel II would result in tremendous flooding and devastation in the Toronto area, where 81 died. Despite all of the historic blizzards, floods, ice storms and tornado outbreaks, Hurricane Hazel is still remembered in Canada as its “storm of the century.” See the book of the same name, by Jim Gifford.
By way of comparison, 16 years earlier there was another devastating East Coast hurricane that was also badly forecast and resulted in a great loss of life and extensive property damage. Known as the “Long Island Express” of 1938, that storm, as was the case with Hazel, was expected to pass out to sea because “hurricanes didn’t hit New England.” (A young meteorological clerk in the Boston Weather Bureau, who believed and told his superiors that a strong ridge to the north would force the storm inland, was overridden.)
The rest is history. That storm caused over 300 fatalities and almost $5 billion in damage in New England and is considered by many meteorologists to be one of the top 10 weather events of the 20th century.