55 years ago, wailing sirens warned of Hurricane Hazel

From their small house in Cherry Grove Beach, South Carolina, a block or so from the Atlantic Ocean, Bessie Mauney and her four friends heard the sirens wailing throughout the day on Thursday, October 14, 1954. But it never occurred to them that they were in any danger.

The women were from Stanly and Rowan counties in the heart of North Carolina’s piedmont, far inland from the coast. There was not a television in the modest cottage, and they were enjoying each other’s company too much to turn on the radio or even glance at a newspaper. They were unplugged from the rest of the world.

Fifty-five years ago this morning, Mauney and her friends realized why the sirens had been blowing. In those days before The Weather Channel and satellites provided continuous coverage of hurricanes, the sirens had been a warning that Hurricane Hazel, one of the worst hurricanes in history, was headed their way. The storm’s eye came ashore on Friday, October 15, 1954 with peak winds of at least 140 mph and a storm surge that reached 18 feet in some places.

“She said they were doing a lot of talking, and they weren’t paying any attention,” recalled Bessie Mauney’s son, James Mauney, of New London, North Carolina. “They heard the sirens but they didn’t know what it meant.”

The cottage was built on stilts high enough to allow Bessie to park her 1952 Chevrolet beneath the house. But the storm surge quickly put the car underwater and sent seawater rising into the cottage. The women were trapped.

The U.S. Weather Bureau started tracking the storm that would become Hurricane Hazel on October 5, 1954. The Weather Bureau’s office in San Juan, Puerto Rico said a “small hurricane” had formed in the Atlantic about 30 miles east of the Caribbean island of Grenada.

As the storm moved westward across the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea, it quickly intensified into a deadly Category 4 hurricane with winds exceeding 130 mph. By October 9, Hazel had turned sharply to the north. In Miami, Weather Bureau meteorologist Grady Norton was so worried about the powerful hurricane that he was working long hours despite a serious heart condition that had prompted his doctor to order him to take it easy. But Norton suffered a stroke while on the job and died.

On October 13, Hurricane Hazel moved through the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti. The storm lost some of its intensity as it crossed Haiti and the Bahamas, but quickly regained strength when it got back over open waters.

The U.S. Air Force sent a hurricane hunter flight from Bermuda to monitor Hazel on October 14. Captain William E. Harrell, who’d flown into other hurricanes, had never seen anything like what he saw that day in Hazel’s eye.

“Usually the ocean is blue or green with little cotton-white patches,” Harrell told reporters after his flight. “But the ocean on each side of the hurricane was like a sheer white sheet as far as I could see. To me, this was a phenomenal sea.”

As Hurricane Hazel moved northward paralleling the coast, the storm picked up speed and soon was racing along at almost 30 mph. Around 8 a.m. on October 15, the hurricane’s outer fringe reached North Island, South Carolina, just south of Myrtle Beach. An hour or so later, Hazel’s eye came ashore near the North Carolina-South Carolina border. Its huge storm surge was made worse because it happened to make landfall at exactly the time of the highest tide of the year along that part of the coast.

At Cherry Grove Beach, winds reached an estimated 130 mph, and seawater was three feet deep in Bessie Mauney’s cottage. Afraid that the building wouldn’t stand up to the storm, Bessie and a cousin climbed into a nearby tree. With the hurricane roaring around them, they clung to the tree for hours. Inside the house, their terrified friends climbed atop a bar to escape the water.

The storm surge lifted the cottage off its foundation and carried it away. The building held together, however, and finally came to rest in a marsh about a half-mile away. “It was well-built,” James Mauney said. “A carpenter here from New London, James Eudy, built the house in the late 1940s.”

As fierce as Hazel was at Cherry Grove Beach, the hurricane was even worse a few miles away in North Carolina. The hurricane’s eye came ashore at Oak Island around 9:30 a.m. The Coast Guard station at Oak Island estimated Hazel’s winds at 140 mph.

Bessie Mauney and her friends survived their ordeal, but it was two days before she was reunited with her family back in Richfield. Eventually, the cottage was returned to its lot at Cherry Grove Beach, and James Mauney said it’s still there today.

Hurricane Hazel is still the worst hurricane to strike North Carolina.

"All traces of civilization on that portion of the immediate waterfront between the state line and Cape Fear were practically annihilated,” the U.S. Weather Bureau later reported. The storm killed more than 600 people from Haiti to Canada, and caused more than $2.6 billion in damages in today’s dollars.

Bessie Mauney’s ordeal during Hurricane Hazel had a powerful effect on her, and she and her husband sold their interest in the cottage.

“My mom said she didn’t want to go to the beach anymore,” James Mauney said. “I don’t think she ever went back to the beach. It really shook her up.”

Photo of historical marker by J.J. Prats, from The Historical Marker Database

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