A woman trudges through flood water past the "Whale of a Beach" whale statue in Carolina Beach.
Photograph by Hugh Morton. North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, UNC Chapel Hill.
Ignoring his doctor's advice to take it easy, forecaster Grady Norton worked 12-hour days tracking Hazel across the Caribbean. On October 9, Grady had a stroke and died. He was Hazel's first victim. Hundreds more would die in Haiti, the United States, and Canada—nineteen of them in North Carolina.
Most of the North Carolina victims drowned along the beaches in Hazel's massive storm surge. In the resort of Ocean Isle, eleven people took shelter in one of the island's larger buildings. As the water rose, the building crumbed, and the people fled to a nearby truck. The men tried to keep the truck upright with the women and children inside, but Hazel soon tore the truck from their hands. Nine of these eleven were lost forever.
But many others did survive Hazel, and they also have harrowing tales to tell:
- Eighty-year-old Alex McEachern and his dog survived by hiding atop his freezer inside his pantry while the rest of the house was destroyed around them.
- A tugboat captain saved the Brunswick River bridge by stopping ships from drifting into it during the storm.
- Tony Seamon and his father, owners of the Sanitary Restaurant, drove to the restaurant during the storm and cut holes in the floor to drain the rising water out of the building. Their effort saved the restuarant, and it was able to serve as a feeding center after the storm.
Connie Ledgett tells of surviving Hazel by floating on a matress in this documentary video produced by WRAL. Click to watch.
The most famous survivor, however, is Connie (Helms) Ledgett. Many reporters have re-told her story. She and her husband, Jerry, were honeymooning in Long Beach, NC, and did not hear the hurricane warnings. Early in the morning, they woke to the sounds of chairs blowing across their porch. They escaped the rising waters by building a raft out of their mattress and sailing it through a second-story window. The surging ocean swept the raft into some treetops where Connie and Jerry endured the storm for several more hours.
After the storm, Connie and Jerry returned to their cottage. Only a small corner of the building remained. Their car and jeep were buried in sand. Jerry found their refrigerator about a mile up the beach. The drinks inside were still cold, so Connie and Jerry sat down and ate lunch out of it.
Connie and Jerry were not alone. Thousands of homes had been destroyed or washed into the marshes on the opposite side of the island. Witnesses said that houses caught in Hazel's storm surge floated by and "crashed together like bumper cars." When the Weather Bureau came to survey the damage, they reported, "All traces of civilization ... were practically annihilated."
The Old Pier House Restaurant remains perched on its stilts among the wreckage next to the Kure Beach Pier.
Besides losing their homes, survivors faced other hardships. In Wilmington, power was out for three days, and 2,000 people crammed into 20 Red Cross shelters. Emergency rooms across the state filled with injured victims. In Morehead City, the hospital basement flooded. Nurses trudged through knee-high water to save patients and equipment while fire trucks tried to pump the water out. And in many places, looting was a problem. The National Gaurd was deployed and checkpoints were set up to restrict access, but thieves would sail or even swim to reach the devastated islands.
Rebuilding would be difficult and costly. Hazel had caused $1.1 billion of damage, and as shrimper Lewis Hardee recalls, few people had insurance back then. Before Hazel, Lewis had just rebuilt his shrimp house and dock out of expensive cypress wood. After Hazel had scattered the pieces across the beach, Lewis took a carpenter's crayon and marked every board with his name. With that lumber, he built a new fish house.
Others, however, could not rebuild. The lives lost could not be replaced. Hazel was one of the more deadly hurricanes to hit the United States. Fifty years later, it is still remembered as one of the greatest disasters in North Carolina's history.