Florence could hit with punch not seen in more than 60 years

Manteca Bulletin - - Nation -

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 the Caroli­nas have 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.

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 at the North Carolina coast and kept roar­ing in­land. They were only slightly di­min­ished by the time the storm reached Raleigh, 150 miles 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 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.

He thought the roof of a neigh­bor­ing cin­derblock house might be safer, but soon a big wave went over that house. When the wave went out, the house was gone, Helms said.

“There was an­other house — a wooden house that was com­ing down the road more or less — and it had some guy in that thing and he’s hol­ler­ing for help,” he said.

Helms pushed a mat­tress through the topfloor win­dow, and they hung on as it bobbed in the rag­ing wa­ter.

What lessons is he ap­ply­ing now that a sim­i­larly pow­er­ful hur­ri­cane is com­ing?

“I didn’t feel like it was go­ing to be bad enough to leave,” Helms said. “I don’t know. I just felt bet­ter about stay­ing here than I did leav­ing.”

He doesn’t have a safer des­ti­na­tion in mind, and hav­ing re­cently bro­ken ribs in a fall, Helms fears get­ting stuck as thou­sands aban­don the coast.

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