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Hazel: a hurricane worse than Irene

September 9, 2011
Jim Whipple

Irene and an earthquake in one week - now that is news.

I remember a hurricane that was much worse and followed a similar path as Irene. The year was 1954, and a hurricane named Hazel hit North Carolina with a punch. It was a Category 4 storm and was fast moving. It hit shore on Oct. 15, 1954 and less than four hours later hit the Washington, D.C., area. Most hurricanes weaken as they move inland. This one did not.

According to the National Weather Service, the speed of the storm was an astonishing speed of 60 miles per hour. It was reported in a recent Washington Post article that wind speeds hit 98 miles per hour during the 5 o'clock hour on Oct. 15.

I was 11 years old the year that Hazel hit. My mother and stepfather were living in Forestville, Md. The little housing project was new and was one of the first housing projects that was created for veterans of World War II. The house was a one-story, prefab house. There was a farm that sat just across the street from us.

My stepfather, Raymond Kroner, was a bridge operator on the 14th Street Bridge. He was called in in case the bridge had to be raised. He later told us about seeing the Potomac River and watched as the river flowed out of its banks, flooding parts of Washington, including the Jefferson Memorial. Many riverfront buildings were flooded. Old Town Alexandria, Route 1 and Mt. Vernon Highway were all under water.

TV was still in its infancy, but all three Washington stations cut into their programming and started to cover the storm. I think it was the first time I ever heard the phrase, "We interrupt this program to bring you breaking news." By afternoon, the eye of storm was passing just west of Washington, D.C. It got very dark and the winds picked up. The electricity was the first to go. By then it was starting to get dark. Mother had several candles lit. You could hear the wind starting to pick up. Every now an then it rained hard and you could hear the rain hit the roof. It sounded like golf balls being dropped on the house. I had gotten another new device in 1954 - a transistor radio. We started to listen to WTOP radio, which was covering the storm. I remember the announcer saying, "Please do not go outside. This is a very dangerous storm."

The wind sounded like a rushing train. The house shook. At one point we thought that the house was going to be sucked off of its foundation. The wind went through the vents in the crawl space, making a loud humming sound. Mother and I and my two sisters and younger brother gathered in the middle of the living room. We stayed there until the storm passed. At one point mother tried to call grandmother but the phone was dead. In our area there was not a lot of rain but before it got dark there seemed to be a fine mist, almost like a fog, that settled in. The storm was fast moving and seemed to end as fast as it had started.

The next day we went outside to see the damage. There were shingles and branches everywhere. The telephone pole was bent half over, and the wires were on the ground. At least a half-dozen buildings were partially or totally unroofed by the winds, while other houses were damaged with crumbled walls. Our house was still standing, though it looked like it was leaning just a little bit. Nearly half the shingles were gone.

A day later our power was restored. You could see the damage the storm had done on TV. In the city, nearly every streetcar line was blocked due to fallen trees and limbs; it was reported that sanitation employees were working double shifts to clean the storm damage. A picture of the Capitol grounds was shown. The reporter said that 20 trees had been knocked down by the winds. At the White House, two trees were blown down.

The Washington Post reported that there had been 39 injuries were reported. Most injuries occurred from falling trees and shattering glass. Eight fatalities were reported in Maryland and 12 in Virginia.

The next year, 1955, brought two more hurricanes within six days of each other - Connie on Aug. 13 and Diane on Aug. 18. Though these were bad storms, they were nothing compared to the hurricane of 1954, Hazel.

 
 
 

 

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