Sunday, September 4, 2011

Hurricane Hazel, or "The Ha'Penny House"

"Hazel" is not a typo.

Given the swift sweep of Irene along the east coast this past weekend, I decided to focus this entry on Hurricane Hazel from my childhood (1954). Below my account you’ll find links to the wikipedia article on Hazel. (I strongly recommend you look at the entire Wikipedia article when you've finished reading my entry.) In keeping with the focus of the blog, I also mention a book I loved back then.

I'm writing this as I remember it from my 8-year old perspective, with parenthetical insertions added to explain what was probably really going on at the time.

We had been visiting my paternal grandparents at "Long Acres" for the previous week before the hurricane struck and I think we were originally intending to stay longer.
(Long Acres was a piece of property belonging to my grandparents on "The Sound" --behind the barrier islands--just outside of Shallotte, North Carolina. It's really Shallotte, not a misspelling of Charlotte NC.

Many years before, my grandparents began "improving" the wooded property with a tent and then built a one-room cabin during the summers when my grandfather wasn't teaching at the Univ of Md. Next step up was a two-floor "house". I posted a picture of it above. Years later--when I was maybe 14--my grandparents had an actual brick house built on next to the original house and connected to it via a breezeway. But, that was way in the future at the time of Hazel.

In my experience, neither floor was ever divided into rooms. Upstairs were a line of beds, rather like in a children’s camping lodge or soldiers barracks. Near my bed was at least one bookcase filled with children’s books, plus books belonging to my step-grandmother.

I seem to remember driving my mom bats because I spent a lot of time reading those books rather than enjoying the really splendid outdoors of woods and the little beach on the sound between the mainland and the barrier islands.

One of my favorite books was titled, “The Halfpenny House”. (Or perhaps, “The Ha’Penny House, even conceivably the “Farthing House”.) It was set in England and recounted how a minor member of the nobility had fallen on rough times, making it difficult for him to keep his property in repair and also continue to afford a minimum staff of servants. In order to make enough money to live in the style to which he had become accustomed, he set up afternoon tours of the non-private rooms on his estate and charged a ha’penny—or maybe a farthing—for each tourist.

Before writing this blog, I tried to find some trace of that book at Amazon (U.S., UK, and Canada). I also tried to Library of Congress database and WorldCat. Nothing. I suppose I have the title slightly wrong but I’ve been convinced it was the Ha’Penny of Half Penny House all these years. It was great fun. Filled if I remember correctly of slightly odd tourists and the children and pets getting in the way of a tour, which was strictly forbidden by their father. I would love to read it again but it looks like that’s going to prove difficult.

Now to Hurricane Hazel.

We heard that Hazel was coming up the coast toward us with her likely landfall of North Carolina. My grandfather insisted that we leave at once and try to beat the storm home. They would remain behind and do their best to “batten down the hatches”.

The next thing I remember is staying overnight in a hotel or motel, probably in Elizabeth, even though this was not our plan because my mother had a bad headache. (My mom was prone to severe migraines for a couple of decades.) We ate out. I remember having dinner in a restaurant and ordering swordfish and being disappointed. Maybe I expected a sword on the side. ;-)

We started north late the next morning. My parents were very anxious about Hazel--it was raining very hard. We got as far as the Chesapeake Bay Ferry the southern dock of which was somewhere in the vicinity of Norfolk (or Newport News?)--and then we sat forever in the car. This happened a little bit even when it was ideal weather. With everyone trying to escape north, it was much worse. (Before the Bridge-Tunnel was built between the "mainland" of Virginia and the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, the only direct route was the link by ferry. These were huge and held tons of cars as well as their passengers.) See pix above & more at:

I was bored just sitting in the back seat. It was pouring raining and windy but I don't think I was scared. Eventually, those in charge at the port ahead of us began to allow the people at the front of the queue of cars board. I remember tense moments as we moved up with my parents wondering if we were going to make it in the first load. I liked the ferry ride and I was definitely on their side about this if for a more innocent reason.

Well, we made it.

(There was just one problem. Those in charge had no business letting the ferry launch. We had been driving north just one step ahead of Hazel and it was gaining ground. Long afterwards my parents used to talk about this.)

We were literally just past the “point of no return” when the Coast Guard told the captain to turn about. He refused, saying that the safest option was to press on over the shorter distance and also away from the hurricane. Many children on that ferry, myself included, may have learned some new vocabulary during our trip aboard, “point of no return”. Fortunately, I doubt most of really “got” what that meant.

Hazel's strongest winds struck us. Everyone was warned to grab unto something--which everyone did. I had my arms wrapped around a painted metal post, and I think my mom was grabbing it up above me. The ferry kept tipping sideways and up and down. I was terrified. I suspect everyone was. Below us, we could hear clanging sounds. All the cars had been chained to keep them from moving as always but that didn't make every one of them secure.

Eventually, we made shore on the Delmarva Peninsula. I don't remember for sure but I think we might have been in the eye of Hazel at this point, because the slow slow offloading of the ferry comes back to me without the mental image of frantic tossing and turning. Or maybe we were just really secured to the dock. Anyway we sat in the car in the dark and waited until the cars ahead of us cleared out and my mom could drive off the boat in turn. Once on road, water was everywhere, branches debris.

Some time a bit after this the second half of Hazel swooped down on us. My mom's headache had returned. The wind had picked up, battering the car and trying to shove it right off the road. Deep water from outside began pouring into the car through tiny openings around the doors. It was virtually impossible to see out of the windows. My parents said afterwards that cars had stalled in the water and been abandoned. Some of these were still in traffic lanes of course.

I wasn't much caring. With no seat belts or car seats for young passengers in those days, I was standing on the back seat looking down at the water covering the floor and screaming.

That went on for a long time. My mom didn't slow down or stop the car for that whole section of the trip. She used to say years later that that was what kept us from stalling out. The next thing I remember is driving up to our house and my -maternal- grandparents racing out the door to greet us.

Later on we learned that my paternal grandparents were safe. The shops on the closest barrier island (Ocean Isle?) had been swept away as if they had never existed. Many of the buildings around or in Shallotte , has suffered damage while others were a bit water-logged. A small shop I had like to visit which was halfway between the town and the house at "Long Aches" was destroyed and never rebuilt.

I wrote a short story based on Hazel and the damage it did to the Shallotte area, with fictitious middle-aged main characters and titled it "Long Acres". Alas, it's never been published. Well, it would probably always mean more to me than to readers. Maybe, some day, I'll write a version for children using my own experiences. Or, would that be too scary? I guess it would depend on how I wrote it.

Sherry Thompson

"Hurricane Hazel was the worst hurricane of the 1954 Atlantic hurricane season and one of the worst hurricanes of the 20th century. Hazel killed as many as 1,000 people in Haiti before striking the United States just north of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and south of Wilmington, North Carolina as a Category 4 hurricane. Nineteen people were killed in North Carolina, and 81 people were killed when it subsequently hit Toronto, Ontario. It is the strongest hurricane ever recorded to strike so far inland."


  1. Wow Sherry! That's quite a story! What an experience it must have been to ride through that! Would it be too scary a story for 8-year-olds? Perhaps, depending on how you present it. But by about 10 or 12, I think most kids would be able to handle it. Perhaps something to look into!

  2. What an experience for a child. No wonder you remember it so well. I've been through tornadoes but no hurricanes. Just reading about them in the news is bad enough. I guess each new hurricane brings back those memories.

    Good post.