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What are some famous local hurricanes?

Ben Steelman

* September 1761 — A severe hurricane sinks several ships and cuts the “Haulover” Inlet near Bald Head Island. This inlet remains open for more than a century.

* Sept. 6, 1769 — A “devastating” hurricane severely damages Smithville (modern-day Southport), blowing down the Brunswick County Courthouse and thousands of trees.

* Aug. 19, 1837 — A hurricane came ashore near Wilmington with tremendous rains. By some accounts “there was not a bridge left standing between Wilmington and Waynesboro” (modern-day Goldsboro). “The gale was cerainly the most violent we have witnessed,” wrote one resident “and the quantity of water … greater than has ever been known.”

* September 1856 — A “perfect tempest” hit the Cape Fear on a full moon, delivering a massive storm surge. Waves were reported breaking up to a half-mile inland. Wrightsville Beach, which had been described as covered in live oaks, has most of its trees uprooted and washed away. Most of the rest die within a few days due to the invasion of salt water.

* Sept. 9, 1881 — A severe hurricane struck Smithville (modern-day Southport) and curved through Wilmington before heading inland on a path that reached as far north as Norfolk, Va. It was reportedly the most violent storm in 50 years. Smithville was “covered with fallen trees, scattered fences and debris of demolished buildings,” according to one eyewitness. “All pilot boats in the harbor were sunk, and loaded vessels driven ashore.” Wrightsville Beach was hit successively by easterly and westerly winds, with many buildings crushed. At Wilmington, the anemometer was disabled after reporting a 4-minute, constant wind of 90 mph. Property damage in the Wilmington area was estimated at $100,000.

* Sept. 11, 1883 — A violent hurricane made landfall near Smithville, with sustained winds of 93 mph and gusts of up to 110 mph. The Cape Fear River flooded, and the Hotel Brunswick at Smithville was turned into a shelter. Far inland, trees and plants appeared frostbitten from the salt spray carried inland from the ocean by the storm. The Frying Pan Shoals Lightship was torn loose from its moorings and came ashore near Myrtle Grove Sound. Other sailing ships were grounded or sunk, and several drownings were reported. The death toll for the storm was estimated at 53 throughout North Carolina, the highest of any storm.

* Oct. 30-31, 1899 — The “Halloween storm” follows a track eerily close to that of Hazel a half-century later, making landfall near the North Carolina-South Carolina line, severely damaging the Brunswick beaches, Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, then heading north for the Virginia line. At Wrightsville, the tracks of the Seacoast Railway were “warped and torn.” More than 20 beach cottages were washed into the sound, the Ocean View Hotel was destroyed, and the Carolina Yacht Club was so badly damaged, it had to be torn down and rebuilt (using much of the same lumber). Cottages were also destroyed at Carolina Beach. The Cape Fear River flooded the wharves in Wilmington; a warehouse was flooded, and a fire broke out when a large quantity of lime became wet. The Southport waterfront was littered with the wreckage of small boats, the remains of the city wharves and the wreck of the steamer Southport. The Wilmington Messenger reported: “Large droves of cattle drifted across the river, dead and alive. They were run off by high waters all over Bald Head Island, which was never known to be covered before.”

* Sept. 17, 1906 — A severe hurricane hit Myrtle Beach, S.C. Although winds in Wilmington never topped 50 miles per hour, a high storm surge hit Wrightsville Beach. As in 1899, the trolley trestle was warped. A hotel and several cottages were washed away, and some 200 people had to be rescued by boat.

* Aug. 1, 1944 — “The greatest storm to strike here in the past 200 years” (according to newspaper reports) probably had sustained winds of less than 100 mph, but damage was extensive. In Wilmington, plate-glass windows were blown out, and some of the city’s biggest oaks were blown down. An estimated 10,000 vacationers were evacuated from Wrightsville and Carolina beaches, with Army trucks from Camp Davis aiding in the effort. Army amphibious vehicles had to be used to rescue soldiers stranded on outlying islands. Thirty-foot waves destroyed the Boardwalk at Carolina Beach, while at Wrightsville Beach, flooding was measured at 18 feet at City Hall. Total damage exceeded $2 million.

* Oct. 15, 1954 — After devastating Haiti, Hurricane Hazel made landfall at the North Carolina-South Carolina line, exactly at the highest lunar tide of the year. The result was the worst hurricane devastation in the history of the coast. Thereafter, old-timers would date events before Hazel, or after Hazel. At Calabash, the storm surge was 18 feet. Winds of up to 150 mph were measured at Holden Beach, up to 140 mph at Oak Island, up to 125 mph at Wrightsville Beach and up to 98 mph at Wilmington.

At Long Beach, Holden Beach and Ocean Isle Beach, virtually every structure was washed away, demolished or severely damaged.

At Long Beach, a honeymooning couple from Whiteville, Connie and Jerry Helms, managed to survive by clinging to a mattress, which they used as a raft after the cinderblock building in which they had taken refuge was washed away. The storm carried them to the leeward side of the island, where the mattress became lodged in some trees near Davis Creek.

At Southport, the storm lifted 35-ton shrimp trawlers over the seawall and swept them into town, crushing houses and cars along the way.

In Wilmington, the Cape Fear River reached its highest flood level in recorded history. Although damage was not extensive, the city was without power for three days and more than half the residents were left with no phone service after overhead lines snapped.

At Carolina Beach, damage totaled $17 million, and 362 buildings were completely destroyed. At Wrightsville Beach, damaged topped $7 million; the 12-foot storm surge ruined dozens of oceanfront cottages. Some 89 buildings were destroyed, along with the town’s sewage plant.

At New Topsail Beach, the drawbridge was “carried away,” and 210 of the beach’s 230 houses were destroyed. A Marine amphibious vehicle was the only means of transport on the beach for days. Damage was severe inland, too; at Wallace, the storm collapsed a tobacco warehouse, killing a man inside.

* Aug. 17, 1955 — Hurricane Connie came ashore on the North Carolina beaches, and gusts of 74 mph were reported in downtown Wilmington. Coastal damage was hardly comparable to Hazel, but severe flooding was reported inland.

* Sept. 27, 1958 — Hurricane Helene grazed the coast, sparing Southport from a direct hit, but it still caused damage. At the Wilmington airport, gusts of up to 135 mph were recorded, the record up to that time. Southport suffered significant wind damage, and some locals said the overall destruction was worse than Hazel. Long Beach suffered lost roofs, and the overwash undermined nearby roads. Gov. Luther Hodges, pleading with beach residents to evacuate, road out the storm on a shelter on Johnnie Mercer’s Pier at Wrightsville Beach.

* Sept. 11, 1960 — After devastating Florida, Hurricane Donna crossed into the Gulf of Mexico, crossed back into the Atlantic and grazed up the coast. On Topsail Island, gusts exceeded 100 mph, with tides running 4-8 feet above normal. Wilmington reported a peak gust of 97 mph. Carolina Beach reported extensive damage.

* Sept. 9-14, 1984 — The first significant hurricane to threaten the coast since Donna, Hurricane Diana turned, wobbled and teased residents for days before making landfall on Bald Head Island on Sept. 13. Fortunately, landfall was at low tide; the storm tide at Carolina Beach was only 5 1/2 feet, and most coastal communities were spared extensive damage. Because of three days of heavy rain — Wilmington reported a total of 13.72 inches — freshwater flooding was a problem inland.

* Sept 21-22, 1989 — After threatening to strike the Cape Fear area, Hurricane Hugo veered to hit Charleston, S.C. instead. Churning across the Piedmont Carolinas, the storm caused extensive damage in the Charlotte area — trapping a few people who’d moved inland to escape it in the first place.

* July 12, 1996 — The first July hurricane to hit the North Carolina coast since 1908, Category 2 Bertha made landfall between Wrightsville Beach and Topsail Island. The Frying Pan Light Station reported sustained winds of 83 mph and gusts up to 108 mph. Storm surges of between 5 and 8 feet hit the Pender and Onslow coastline, causing extensive damage at Topasial Beach, Surf City, North Topsail Beach and Swansboro. At North Topsail, more than 120 homes were destroyed. Fishing piers were damaged or destroyed from Kure Beach to Carteret County, and severe erosion swallowed much of the beach. At Carolina Beach, parts of Carolina Avenue were under 3 feet of sand, and raw sewage flowed into the streets near the Boardwalk after a pumping station failed.

The 42-foot Ferris wheel at Carolina Beach’s Jubilee Park was toppled.

* Sept. 5-6, 1996 — A category 3 storm, Hurricane Fran hit just weeks after Bertha, its landfall track almost following the course of the Cape Fear River northward from Cape fear. Atlantic beaches were hardest hit by the storm’s strongest winds, with gusts of up to 122 mph at Figure Eight Island, vs. 105 mph at Southport.

Some Wrightsville Beach residents claimed the tidal surge was higher than Hazel’s. Almost the entire town was underwater at some point, with 560 homes and 50 businesses damaged. In Carolina Beach, one house washed off its foundation and drifted 200 feet inland, coming to rest on Canal Drive. The 197-foot steeple of First Baptist Church, 411 Market St., Wilmington [Map this], which had stood since the Civil War and survived Hazel, was toppled by one of Fran’s early gusts. On Bradley Creek, a floating dock and several large boats rammed the Oleander Drive Bridge. At Topsail Beach, nearly all the cottages facing the beach were destroyed. At Surf City, more than 300 homes suffered damage exceeding half their value. At North Topsail Beach, still recovering from Bertha, nearly 90 percent of the structures were destroyed or damaged beyond repair.

Further inland, towns like Burgaw, Wallace and Warsaw were littered with fallen tree limbs, loose shingles and broken glass. Dozens of homes in Burgaw were flooded, and many Pender County roads remained underwater for days after the storm. A Rose Hill woman was killed when a gust toppled the chimney on her house. At Kenansville, a gust blew off the copper dome of the 1911 county courthouse. Agricuitural losses were estimated at $189 million, including more than 1 million dead turkeys and chickens and 16,000 dead hogs.

* Aug. 26-27, 1998 — Hurricane Bonnie, a weakening Category 2 storm, made landfall near Cape Fear with sustained winds of up to 110 mph, and an unofficial reading of 116 mph was recorded at Wrightsville Beach. Storm surges of up to 5 to 8 feet were reported along the Brunswick and New Hanover coastline. A house at Calabash lost its roof, as did a bank in Sunset Beach and parts of Brunswick Community Hospital in Supply; a convoy of Humvees was hastily organized to transfer patients to New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington. Several houses were reported damaged in Carolina Beach, along with a fishing pier. The storm brought several moments of human drama. Golfers were reported heading for the greens at St. James Plantation for a few holes while the storm’s 15-mile-wide eye passed over Brunswick County. At Shallotte, a stranded traveler, caught with no power and no battery radio, used his cell phone to call his father in New York for Weather Channel bulletins.

* Sept. 16, 1999 — Originally a Category 4 storm, Hurricane Floyd had weakened to a Category 2 by the time it made landfall at 3 a.m. at Cape Fear, with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph. A recorder at the Blockade Runner Hotel in Wrightsville Beach took an unofficial reading of a gust at 138 mph. The National Weather Service in Wilmington reported sustained winds of up to 86 mph. Oak Island recorded a storm surge of 10.4 feet, while tides were 9-10 feet above normal from Fort Fisher northward to Onslow County. Four tornadoes associated with the storm were spotted near Wilmington.

Several barges loaded with munitions broke loose from their moorings at the Miitary Ocean Terminal at Sunny Point; one ran aground on the Cape Fear River near Fort Fisher and had to be unloaded from the marsh. At Topsail Island, the storm cut three small inlets.

The greatest threat from Floyd, however, was the heavy rainfall associated with the storm. Wilmington reported 13.38 inches of rain on Sept. 15, setting a new record — which was promptly broken when 15.06 inches fell between Floyd’s landfall and the morning of Sept. 16. Sixteen inches of rain were recorded in Brunswick County and up to 19 inches in parts of Bladen.

Disaster officials soon realized they were facing a “500-year flood,” with the worst effects in inland rural areas. The Northeast Cape Fear River crested at 23.51 feet at Chinquapin in Duplin County on Sept. 18, a full 7 feet above the flood crest for Fran in 1996. (At that point, the river’s normal flood stage was 13 feet.) For a time, nearly all major roads in Pender and Duplin County were impassable. Military helicopters, called into service, had to rescue some 500 people in Duplin County alone. The swollen Pender and Rockfish creeks flooded out I-40, and some drivers were drowned as their cars and vans were washed away.

The death toll from the storm in North Carolina was estimated at 52. In addition, flooding in the eastern part of the state drowned some 2.4 million chickens, 700,000 turkeys and 30,000 swine. Emergency officials had to obtain several large incinerators to serve as crematoria for the carcasses. Thousands of homes were flooded and state officials conservatively estimated property losses at $3.6 billion.

Related link:

Wilmington,North carolina’s history with tropical systems

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6 Responses to “ What are some famous local hurricanes?”

  1. On May 29, 2009 at 2:38 am alberta jackson-reid sorrosa wrote:

    There was one home still standing on long beach strand. It is still there today I believe if development has not taken it. I do not know the adress but I do remember my grandmother and mother actually showing me the house.Check the State Port Pilot and the Harpers who actually owned the paper.

  2. On May 29, 2009 at 2:42 am alberta jackson-reid sorrosa wrote:

    Oh the storm was “Hazel” in the event that the house was the only one on Long Beach.

  3. On August 23, 2009 at 10:34 am Vicki Burton wrote:

    It was the Capel House that was still left after Hazel. It’s still there on the West end of Oak Island…high up at the top of a the only dune ridge not flattened by development, and completely enveloped by wind sheared live oaks. Everyone else had cut theirs down.

  4. On August 25, 2011 at 7:58 am Anne Russell wrote:

    I well remember the 1944 storm, when I was 6 years old. My grandfather Ed Wootten, who loved “weather,” insisted we stay at the Carolina Yacht Club (his uncle Richard Bradley had been the first commodore) after everyone else had left and the parking lot was empty. When the ocean and sound met in the middle of the road, and water was up over the running boards on his old car, the beach police ordered him to evacuate, as they were closing the bridge. The car “swam” over the bridge and Harbor Island, a large oak tree crashed in front of us, and we barely made it back to town. All night I said my prayers as I listened to the wind howl.

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