To Hell and Back Again with Hurricane Hazel
by David Healey
You can still find a few old-timers who will share stories about one of the biggest hurricanes in living memory to strike the Chesapeake Bay. Her name was Hazel, and by the time she finished roaring through in the early autumn of 1954, trees would be uprooted, roofs ripped off and the crabbing industry devastated. As it would turn out, three hurricanes would reach the Chesapeake that year—the other two were Edna and Carol—but it was Hurricane Hazel that left a lasting impression on the region.
Although hurricane hunter planes were flying by then, meteorologists more than half a century ago still had only a rudimentary understanding of these great storms. As a result, Hazel’s wrath would catch many in the mid-Atlantic region by surprise before the storm steamrolled north to become one of Canada’s deadliest weather events. While forecasters knew the storm was approaching, it was generally expected to weaken greatly as it came ashore. As events would prove, that would not be the case.
The storm arrived in October, at a time when the weather is usually some of the best on Chesapeake Bay, with golden early autumn days, blue skies and beautiful sunsets. But during those first two weeks of October, the weather in the Chesapeake had been unseasonably hot and humid, with temperatures in the nineties. It was as if a bit of the tropics had decided to vacation in Maryland. Little did Chesapeake residents know that the hot, steamy weather would serve as a portent that a tropical cyclone was brewing thousands of miles away off the coast of Africa.
The storm that would become known as Hazel was first spotted on October 5 not far from Grenada. The storm track was difficult for forecasters to predict, proving them wrong as the storm not only grew in intensity but also took a series of turns that brought it ever closer to the United States.
Just before the storm finally made landfall on the morning of October 15 in the Carolinas, hurricane hunters measured the wind speed at 140 miles per hour, making it a massive and powerful Category 4 storm. By then, the clouds from the huge storm had already reached as far north as Pennsylvania, casting a shadow across the region.
The weather had been still and humid, but the wind soon began to pick up as the storm marched closer. In Norfolk, Virginia, at the entrance to the bay, sustained winds of 78 miles per hour and gusts of 100 miles per hour were measured. Baltimore soon had sustained winds of up to 74 miles per hour as the storm struck the Chesapeake region. Talbot County reported a gust of 108 miles per hour. In Philadelphia, gusts of up to 100 miles per hour were recorded. As the storm traveled up the coast, it battered New York City, buffeting the Big Apple with high winds. A gust was recorded at Battery Park of 113 miles per hour, the highest on record for the city.
Winds of that intensity for a sustained period are extremely damaging. Stately trees were ripped from the ground, and many homes lost roofs or suffered wind damage. (When all was said and done, the storm would cost the Maryland and Washington, D.C. area about $22 million—an amount that would be multiplied several times over in today’s dollars.)
Winds did not cause the only damage. Hazel brought a storm surge and very heavy rain to the region as well. According to NOAA, six to twelve inches of rain fell in western Maryland, causing severe flooding there. Tides reached two to six feet above sea level on the Chesapeake. The resulting flooding in Baltimore filled the streets. Waves churned up by the high winds and carried by the flood tide pounded the shoreline and docks. Even at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, the storm severely battered training vessels and sailing yachts that had been secured in advance against the storm. Elsewhere, closer to the open water of the lower bay, the storm surge swept away docks. Small craft broke free and sank. Wind and waves battered larger vessels into splinters.
Experts now say the storm was very deadly for that time, resulting in as many as ninety-five deaths in the United States. Overall, in Virginia, the storm was blamed for eighteen deaths—including four who perished when a tugboat capsized in the James River. An estimated eighteen thousand homes there were damaged. Half of all the electric and telephone lines in the state were downed by the storm winds.
The devastation was almost as bad in Maryland. NOAA reports that six Marylanders died as a result of the storm and several more were injured. (An additional three people were killed in the District of Columbia.) While most of the damage to homes was caused by wind, some houses close to the water literally washed away. The tidal surge and winds essentially wiped out the Eastern Shore’s crabbing industry, and crab pots left in the water before the storm were a total loss.
Roads and bridges in the flood zone required expensive repair or replacement once high waters receded. Approximately half a million trees were downed. Maryland’s apple and tobacco crops—still important state industries back then—sustained terrible damage just at harvest time.
Hazel had expended a great deal of its energy in the Chesapeake region, but the storm was far from down and out as it rolled northward. The hurricane would have blown itself out, but during the night the storm united with a cold front coming down from the Midwest and was reenergized. With renewed force, a monsterized Hazel struck Canada with hurricane-force winds of up to ninety-three miles per hour. The flooding and wind damage were extensive in Ontario. By the time Hazel finally dissipated into gusty winds and rain, at least eighty-one people had been killed in Canada by the hurricane.
On its official site, the National Weather Service lists Hurricane Hazel as one of the top ten weather events of the twentieth century to impact the Baltimore region. Even today, more than fifty years after that fateful day, Hurricane Hazel remains one of the benchmarks against which any great storm of the Chesapeake is measured.
The chapter above is from Great Storms of the Chesapeake by David Healey.