My Mother: Part 3 – Surviving Hurricane Hazel (With Emphasis on “Trees”!)

Hurricane Hazel was the deadliest and costliest hurricane of the 1954 Atlantic hurricane season. The storm killed as many as 1,000 people in Haiti before striking the United States near the border between North and South Carolina, as a Category 4 hurricane. After causing 95 fatalities in the US, Hazel struck Canada as an extratropical storm, raising the death toll by 81 people, mostly in Toronto. As a result of the high death toll and the damage caused by Hazel, its name was retired from use for North Atlantic hurricanes. (From Wikipedia)

It was October 15, 1954. I remember it well—it was the day after my 10th birthday and I had gotten a brand new bicycle. My folks listened to radio station WRVA every morning for the news. There had been a report on that there was a hurricane out there somewhere and that we should stay tuned to see where it might go. Mother and I went to school. She drove the car that morning. Late in the morning, the school got word to close school and send everyone home—Hurricane Hazel was approaching rapidly.

We headed for home, but already the winds were whipping trees around. The 20-mile route home was lined with trees, and there was the possibility that a tree could come down at any minute. What we did not know was that this was just the outer winds of the storm—and we knew nothing of “Category 4” back then. The tree-toppling winds were still 30 minutes away. We stopped briefly at the post office, where my father was the postmaster, to let him know we were going home. The winds grew progressively stronger.

The wind was whipping viciously as we turned into the farm road. All of the 1.5 miles of farm road was lined with trees, except the last quarter mile to the house that crossed an open field. Leaves and branches were swirling all around. We made it down the railroad cut, across the tracks and back up the other side. We only had about 100 yards to go before the road broke into the open, lined by fields, leading to the house. But we would not make it. There was a large tree already lying directly across the road. It had a 12-inch trunk and there was no way we were going to move it. Lois did not want to sit in the car with all the other trees around and she figured we had a better chance of dodging trees as we ran for the open area.
One of the many larger trees that were blown over during the storm. This one just missed a shed across the yard from the house.

Nothing was said, we just ran down the road. There was another tree across the road. We climbed over it and raced for the open fields now visible some fifty yards down the wooded lane.

Out of the woods, there was nothing to slow the wind and it blew fiercely. There was a short stretch of road that ran along the edge of a field, with trees on one side. The wind was blowing from that side and the trees danced wildly, bent over on the verge of being snapped off or uprooted. The house was several hundred yards ahead and we cut across the open fields to avoid the trees on either side, and finally up the driveway and into the house.

In the house, we were not sure we were any better off. The winds howled around the eaves of the house. Looking out the kitchen window at the back of the house, I could see an occasional shingle from the roof fly off into the distance. We took shelter in the basement.

I remember, as we waited, the winds ceased almost instantly and it sounded as if the storm had just quit. We went up and looked out the front windows, in the direction storm had come from. There was bright blue sky above, but in the distance, more ominous black clouds. Lois explained to me that the eye of the storm had crossed over us. Always the teacher, she quickly sketched what a hurricane would look like from above, including the eye of the storm. Before that lesson was complete, the winds started up again, as hard as they had been only minutes before—and the power went out. We ducked back into the basement to wait out the rest of the storm.

It was dusk when the storm and the rains finally subsided and moved on. My father came walking in the drive just before dark. He had to leave his truck even farther from the house than the car because another tree had fallen behind the car.

The house had survived the storm, minus some of those shingles. The yard was crisscrossed with fallen trees and limbs—I was not going to be able to ride my new bike that day. Several big trees were lying in the yard beside the house. Had they fallen on the house, they would have caused severe damage. We were lucky.

The morning after the sky was clear. My father got a long two-man crosscut saw from the shed, and he and I went out to cut the trees from the road. Although I had just turned ten years old, I could pull on that saw and within a couple of hours, we had trees cut so we could drive in and out.
Lois Hazel-1954-13
Lois cooking dinner at the fireplace. After Hurricane Hazel, we had no electrical power for a week.

Electricity came to our house along lines that stretched across the creek. We were on the very end of the power lines, and it would take the power company more than a week to finally restore our power. Because the power was out we had to cook over the fireplace in the basement and carry water from an artesian well on the lower end of the farm that flowed continuously. School remained closed for the rest of the week, but my father made it to the post office late that morning, after we had cut those trees.

Since there was no real damage to the house, and the only hardship was the absence of electrical power, it became an extended camping-like experience for me. I recall reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln by the light of the fireplace. Coincidentally, the biography described how young Abe would read by the firelight in the fireplace. The shared experience made something of an impression on me.
Lois (my Mother, left), Susie (my grandmother), and Cousin Neil having dinner cooked over the fireplace. Candles and lanterns provided light

During this time, we ate well. Mother proved to be as good at cooking over a fire as in the kitchen. My grandmother, Susie, and cousin Neil sat through the storm at her house on the lower end of the farm. There had been no serious damage there either. And they were soon joining us for dinner in the basement.

The trees that were knocked over by that storm provided firewood for us for many years afterwards.

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