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What were the five worst hurricanes to hit Southeastern North Carolina?

Ben Steelman
StarNews
The Southport waterfront along Bay Street was destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Hazel in Oct. 1954. StarNews file photo.

The Southport waterfront along Bay Street was destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Hazel in Oct. 1954. StarNews file photo.

“ ‘Worst’ in hurricane terms can be defined three ways: deaths, dollars and intensity,” said Southport native Jay Barnes, author of “North Carolina’s Hurricane History,” “Florida’s Hurricane History” and other books on great storms.

Based on those categories, here are Barnes’ picks:

1. Floyd (Sept. 16, 1999): The most expensive hurricane in North Carolina’s history, with an estimated $6 billion in damage, and the second most deadly, with 52 deaths blamed on the storm. Although Floyd’s effects were relatively limited on the coast, heavy rains caused catastrophic flooding in inland counties.

2. Hazel (Oct, 15, 1954): The big one – the only Category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, so far, to hit North Carolina. (Category 4 storms have sustained winds of 130-156 miles per hour; anything higher is a Category 5.)

Lots of old-timers used to date events as “before Hazel” or “after Hazel.” Winds of up to 125 mph were measured at Wrightsville Beach, up to 140 mph at Oak Island and up to 150 at Holden Beach and Calabash.

Storm surges were worsened by hitting exactly at a high lunar tide under the October full moon. The highest recorded surge was 19 feet. Virtually every structure at Holden Beach and Long Beach (now part of Oak Island) was washed away or severely damaged. Southport was flooded by an 8-foot surge as Hazel pushed water up the Cape Fear River. At Topsail Beach, 210 of the 230 houses were destroyed. Wilmington suffered the highest flooding in its history, and residents were without electric power for three days.

Hazel retained much of its destructive power even as it moved overland into New York State.

3. An unnamed hurricane hit Smithville (modern-day Southport) on Sept. 11, 1883, with winds of more than 80 mph lasting seven hours. Some gusts exceeded 110 mph.

Many boats were torn from their moorings – the Frying Pan Shoals Lightship was blown ashore at Myrtle Grove Sound – and many drownings were reported in shipwrecks. The death toll, at least 53 people, was the highest of any storm in North Carolina history.

4. Fran (Sept. 5-6, 1996): A Category 3 hurricane (sustained winds of 111-129 mph), Fran seemingly followed the course of the Cape Fear River inland, causing significant damage.

Although Southport and Brunswick County were largely spared the worst winds, the storm buffeted the New Hanover beaches. More than 560 houses and 50 businesses were damaged at Wrightsville Beach, and residents returned to find a 4-foot scum line on their buildings from the storm surge.

In Wilmington, Fran toppled the steeple of First Baptist Church on Market Street. At Topsail Beach, nearly all the front-row cottages were destroyed, and about half the second-row houses were destroyed or severely damaged.

Since Fran came barely six weeks after Hurricane Bertha hit in July, flooding was particularly severe in water-soaked areas of Pender County.

5. An unnamed “perfect storm” struck the Cape Fear coast during the full moon of Sept. 14, 1856, causing what many believe might have been the worst storm surge in the state’s history. Wrightsville Beach was so over-washed that ocean waters toppled most of what was once described as a thick growth of live oak trees; the survivors died within the next few years because of saltwater encroachment. Fortunately, the beach had not yet been developed.

Some reports had waves breaking a half-mile inland from the sounds, at a depth of up to 30 feet. Heavy crop damage was reported inland as fields were flooded with saltwater.

Before the 20th century and modern weather reporting, the impact of historic hurricanes is hard to judge, Barnes said. A hurricane reportedly blew down the Brunswick County Courthouse at Smithville (now Southport), along with thousands of trees on Sept. 6, 1769.

RELATED LINKS:

Has the eye of a hurricane ever passed over Wilmington?

What are some famous local hurricanes?

Didn’t a destroyer come loose on the Cape Fear River during Hurricane Bertha?

What are the hotel/motel cancellation policies when a hurricane is due to arrive?

 

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