My dad, as a sailor, survived Hurricane Hazel in North Carolina in 1954. He’s back in North Carolina facing Irene now.
With Hurricane Irene bearing down on us, I recall the story my dad told me of the 2 days he braved Hurricane Hazel in North Carolina when he was in the U.S. Navy. In October 1954 Hazel hit land as one of the most disastrous hurricanes in U.S. history. Now nearly 60 years later my dad is living again in North Carolina, just south of Wilmington, on the coast. And I know he will brave this historic storm as well.
In 1954, my dad was a communications specialist at the Weeksville Naval Air Station in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Weeksville, at the time, was a helicopter and blimp base. When my dad was stationed there, Weeksville was at its zenith with 2 blimp squadrons and an anti-submarine helicopter squadron calling it home. 10 blimps and 12 helicopters were based here. It also housed the largest wooden structure in the world, a blimp hangar that was as large as three football fields inside. It held this record distinction until an unseen spark from a welder’s torch started a fire in 1995 and it burned down.
But in 1954, when my dad was based at Weeksville, Category Four Hurricane Hazel landed. It brought 150 mph winds and a record 18 foot storm surge at Calabash, North Carolina. Hazel carved a path of destruction that left over 600 dead. Damages exceeded $350 million 1953 U.S. dollars. The storm surge from Hurricane Hazel ranged from 14 to 18 feet.
Hazel slammed the coast and flood waters raged from the nearby Albemarle Sound a good foot through the base. All married sailors were sent home. My dad, single, was left as the only communications employee on the base to operate all communications during the storm. He stayed at his post for 2 days days as the windows rattled and the water seeped in. He survived without power, 1 meal, and no sleep.
The building he was in was strapped down with steel cables so it wouldn’t be damaged. However, the storm was so fierce that it moved the world’s largest wooden structure – the blimp hangar – one foot off its foundation. “Man,” my dad said. “I don’t want to go through that again.”
My dad would meet my mother a few years later, marry, and adopt a daughter – who would eventually also serve in the U.S. Navy as well (me!). You can read the letters between my dad and myself during my boot camp survival in my 1980s memoir “Letters from Boot Camp”. As an “old salt of the sea” my dad gives a “new salt” advice on succeeding in the U.S. Navy.
So, from a “new salt” to an “old salt” I fervently hope my dad stays safe once again through this hurricane – as do all people along the Eastern seaboard this weekend. And remember our servicemen and women, many who must remain in harm’s way of the hurricane to do their duty.