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Florence could rival North Carolina’s 1954 ‘benchmark storm’

Photo by Associated Press

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP)

The last time the midsection of the East Coast stared down a hurricane like this, Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House and Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were newlyweds.

Hurricane Florence could inflict the hardest hurricane punch North Carolina has seen in more than 60 years, with rain and wind of more than 130 mph (209 kph).

North Carolina has been hit by only one other Category 4 storm since reliable record keeping began in the 1850s. That was Hurricane Hazel in 1954. Hurricane Hugo made landfall in South Carolina as a Category 4 hurricane in 1989.

In comparison, Florida, which is closer to the equator and in line with the part of the Atlantic where hurricanes are born, off the African coast, has had at least five hurricanes in the past century of Category 4 or greater, including Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Hazel’s winds were clocked at 150 mph (240 kph) at the North Carolina coast and kept roaring inland. They were only slightly diminished by the time the storm reached Raleigh, 150 miles (240 kilometers) inland. Nineteen people died in North Carolina. The storm destroyed an estimated 15,000 buildings.

“Hazel stands as a benchmark storm in North Carolina’s history,” said Jay Barnes, author of books on the hurricane histories of both North Carolina and Florida. “We had a tremendous amount of destruction all across the state.”

Twelve hours after its landfall, Hazel was in Buffalo, New York, and had ripped through seven states with winds still swirling at 100 mph (160 kph) or more.

Few people have experienced the ferocity of a storm like Hazel, which also was blamed for at least 60 deaths in Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York state.

Jerry Helms, 86, was on his honeymoon on a barrier island off the North Carolina coast when Hazel hit on the evening of Oct. 14, 1954. He and his new bride had been to a roller skating rink and missed the evacuation warnings from police officers who went door to door.

Hazel obliterated all but five of 357 buildings in the beach community now known as Oak Island. The Helmses barely survived.

As the storm crashed ashore, they abandoned their mobile home for a two-story frame house. Before long, it was collapsing under the waves and “the house was falling in, and all the furniture was falling out through the floor,” Helms recalled Monday.