Residents remember Hurricane Hazel
By Matt Shaw
Published in News on October 10, 2004 2:09 AM
Fifty years ago this week, Hazel came to Wayne County and changed us.
She was the first hurricane that many people had ever experienced. She came without much warning and left quickly, but the cleanup took months. Scott Berkeley, then the mayor of Goldsboro, estimated the damage in the city at $3 million, a figure that assuredly looked even larger back then.
Some damage would never be repaired. Hazel was a killer and she ruined lives. After her, people would never view the Septem-ber and Oct-ober skies the same way.
* * *
Buddy Allen heard the forecasts on WGBR radio station that morning of Oct. 15, 1954. A lot of people did. They just didn't believe them.
"They said it was going to be bad, but 90 percent of people did not believe them. We hadn't been hit by a hurricane, so why would it happen this time? I almost didn't believe it myself," he said.
* * *
Wayne County schools started on schedule, even though high winds pushed at least five school buses off the road.
Roselyn Edwards was preparing to teach music when Walnut Street School Principal Lelia Cooper stopped her in the hallway. Superintendent Ray Armstrong now expected Hazel to come right over Goldsboro.
"She said, 'We're going to bring all the children to the auditorium, and I want you to sing with them until their parents can get them,'" she said.
The school had more than 800 students. "When I looked out, it seemed like it was an ocean of children," Mrs. Edwards said.
She worked through a songbook of patriotic, folk and nursery songs. "Hickory Dickory Dock." "London Bridge." "God of Our Fathers," the national hymn.
"We sang and sang and sang. And ever so often, someone would come up and tap children on the shoulder and they'd leave," she said.
No one likely gave the students any hint of what was really happening, she said. "We were very protective of children in those days."
* * *
All George Thompson, then a Goldsboro High School junior, could think about was "Free Day!"
"They told us that we were getting out of school right after first period because of the hurricane," he said. "Well, in my mind, hurricanes never hit anywhere but Florida. So Dean Best, Gordon Maxwell and I went out for a ride. We never went home and we never went inside."
The trio cruised around town in Maxwell's 1955 Oldsmobile during the first pass of Hazel. They stopped by Best Service Station, where Best's father worked, then Maxwell dropped his friends off at Best's home to have lunch.
Thompson was walking home when the winds picked up again. "There was a big used-car lot at the corner of Center and Oak streets. I ran in there and ducked between some cars," he said. Then he went across the road and stood on a front porch and watched trees fall around him.
"Then I walked home to meet my panicked parents," he said. "I wasn't smart enough to be scared. There was just more of an excitement, as a kid, at not having to go to school."
* * *
The strong wind was bending in the frames of the windows in the lunchroom of Calypso High School. Agriculture teacher W.H. Hurdle went to the woodshop and came back with extremely long 2-by-4s that he pushed up against the frames to hold them in place.
Then he had the senior boys, including L.H. "Louie" Byrd Jr., stand on the other ends on the boards. Then, as the wind shifted, they moved the boards to the other side of the cafeteria and braced the windows.
In all, the 19 seniors braced those windows for more than an hour, said Byrd, now of Mount Olive.
"Can you imagine what would have happened if those windows had blown in? But we didn't care about the possible danger. We were just trying to save the school as best we could. At least the lunchroom," he said with a laugh.
* * *
L.S. Guy, now the chairman of the Duplin County commissioners, was down the hallway at Calypso High. He remembers standing in a science lab watching the storm.
"I saw the roof off a large building go flying through the air," he said. "Another thing that stands out was the number of large trees that were uprooted."
The big roof may have been off the gym, he said.
"Nobody was hurt," he said. "I don't remember any serious damage to the school. I don't remember any excitement, just looking out the south side window at lots of oak trees. I think that was the first (hurricane) that ever got our attention."
* * *
"They came on the radio and said, 'Anybody who's still got kids at school, go get them,'" Buddy Allen said.
* * *
Elton Hinnant, now of Pikeville, was working at Sear's downtown. The store's manager, Archie Hamil, was originally from Florida and knew about hurricanes.
"He said we needed to hold the front and back doors open so that it wouldn't cause a vacuum in the store and break the windows," Hinnant said. Sure enough, the trick worked.
As Hinnant stood holding the door, he saw one of the big curbside mailboxes, the type you drop mail in, come "rolling down the street like a football."
* * *
As debris started piling up in roads, Lillie Maye Jackson started plotting her way out of Goldsboro. "I didn't know how, but I had three small children at home and I knew I had to get there," she said.
She started off toward her home on what's now U.S. 13, south of the fairgrounds, but the winds were blowing so hard and in swirling directions that utility poles from different sides of the road were nearly touching at their tops, she said. "Why on Earth they didn't break, I don't know."
When she got home, trees blocked her driveway. She left her car and ran for her home, then ushered her children inside. Just then a strong wind grabbed her porch glider and threw it across the road and 100 feet into a field.
"They would have, every one of them, been killed," Mrs. Jackson said.
* * *
Dot Turner was working for the Chamber of Commerce and was at the post office when Hazel hit. She didn't know if she would be able to leave. "It looked like my car might flip over," she said.
"One of the funny things, if you can call it that, to happen was that we had a bird-dog who was absolutely petrified by the wind," she said. "When it calmed down and seemed to be over, we let him out the door. Just then, the TV antenna fell and chopped the end of his tail off."
* * *
Katie Barrick Vaughn had begun contractions as Hazel arrived. Her husband, William, drove her to Crumpler-Henderson Clinic in Mount Olive. A tree had fallen across it and the water was cut off, but the doctor delivered William "Bill" Murphy Vaughn Jr. without a hitch.
"My mother liked to joke that I was a disaster when I got here and had been a disaster ever since," Vaughn said with a laugh.
* * *
Miriam "Speedy" Scott, a nurse at Wayne County Memorial Hospital, screamed when she saw Dr. Winfield Thompson in danger.
She had just completed giving out medications when she looked out the window and across Simmons Street when she saw a tree falling toward Dr. Thompson.
"I screamed so loud that the whole hospital heard me. Dr. (George) Benton ran up to see what was wrong," she said.
Mrs. Scott had gotten her nickname because she was quick and accurate in her duties, she said. But this time Dr. Thompson was even quicker, escaping injury.
* * *
"I remember a neighbor picking me and my brother up from school and taking us home. I was so scared," said Sandra Bass Hall, now of Sanford, Fla.
"My mother took us to the center of the house and that is where we huddled until the storm blew over," she said. "She told us not to be afraid, that everything would be OK. She told us to stay quiet while God was at work and that He would soon be finished. We trusted her completely and believed everything she told us.
"I remember we thought it was over when the eye passed."
Her family was the only one on the block without damage, she said. "I remember asking my mother, 'Why didn't our roof blow off and why didn't the trees fall onto our house?' She just hugged me and told me that God works in mysterious ways.
"We were a poor family that thrived on the love of our mother. She cut those trees up for firewood that kept us warm that winter."
* * *
"I heard him yelling on the radio, 'The storm is coming back,'" Buddy Allen said. "It did and it was worse."
* * *
Although at least 18 people were carried to the Goldsboro hospital with injuries, Wesley Wooten, a Pikeville farmer, was the only person in Wayne County to have been killed by the storm.
A tree fell on Wooten's home, tore through the roof and hit both him, 56, and his mother, Fannie, 76, who was less seriously injured.
His son, Elton Wooten, rushed to his side. "He was tore up bad. I put my hand on his chest and it felt like crumbled-up crackers," Elton Wooten said.
When Hazel's eye passed overhead, Wesley Wooten was carried to the Goldsboro hospital, which had lost power. "They operated on him by flashlight," Elton Wooten said. He died that night.
Bill Taylor Sr. of Warsaw died when Hussey's Tobacco Warehouse collapsed in Wallace.
* * *
Dollie Horton Mozingo, then 17, rushed home when her school in Pikeville dismissed and went to find her parents who were working in a tobacco packhouse.
"The wind got so strong that the packhouse was shaking," she recalled. The family and others piled into a car outside, but the wind started pushing it down the road.
"The fellow behind the wheel had the brakes to the floor, but it didn't make any difference," she said. "We just kept rolling down the road.
"I could see trees across the field being put down like a bulldozer was hitting them. I was really fearful."
She laughed. "Something like that sticks in your memory a long time."
* * *
Dean Gurley was 11 when he saw the wind pick up two tobacco barns and toss them like toys. A carload of people was lifted off the ground and slammed into an embankment. Utility poles were snapping like toothpicks.
He remembers seeing a brand new fleet of Cadillacs destroyed by building debris downtown, he said. He held his hand 2 feet above the ground. "They were about that tall afterward," he said, adding, "That was my 'Pearl Harbor.' I still have nightmares about it."
* * *
Theresa Mozingo Ed-wards and her two children were at her in-laws' home on Stronauch Avenue when the storm arrived.
"I stood in the living room and held up quilts over the windows," she said. "My son was bouncing up and down and he was saying, 'Pray, Mama, pray!'
"And I said, 'Shug, I am praying.'
"And he said, 'Pray louder -- God can't hear you!'" Mrs. Edwards laughed heartily. "Bless his heart, he was doing some jumping!"
Mrs. Edwards still lives in Goldsboro, while Herbert "Herb" Edwards lives in Silver Springs, Md., where he sometimes tells the story himself in church, his mom said.
* * *
Charles Mozingo's grandmother, Katie Bell Dixon Smith, was sitting at a pedal-operated Singer sewing machine, working quietly. The rest of the family was waiting nervously inside Mrs. Smith's home on Indian Springs Road at N.C. 55 for the storm to ease.
"All of a sudden, we heard something scratching the window," Mozingo said.
The family looked and saw that the absolute top limb of a fallen tree was touching the house. Possible disaster has been adverted by inches.
"My grandmother said, 'Lord have mercy, that big oak has fallen.' And then she went back to sewing," said Mozingo, now of Mount Olive. "Looking back, I think how she handled it probably kept us all much calmer."
Kermit H. Wall and his wife, Annie, fled his parents' home at the corner of N.C. 581 and Memorial Church Road when strong winds started collapsing the chimney inside the fireplace.
Wall carried his three-week-old daughter, Sandy, while Annie held onto his back. They made their way to a nearby store, a scene that Wall recreated with a drawing last week.
The Walls worried about their own home, but they found it in good shape, the only thing askew was a door open. "Nothing else was out of place. I told my wife the Master was watching over us," he said.
* * *
Jeannie Denning, now of Bloomington, Ind., was with her family at the home of her uncle and her aunt, who coincidentally was named Hazel.
"Everybody was teasing her about being a hurricane. She was a 5'4" strawberry blonde. She took it well," Mrs. Denning said.
"During the worst of the storm, my mother almost had a breakdown," Mrs. Denning said. "The wind was howling and everybody was crying. My mother grabbed my baby sister, who was about a month old, and said that she was going somewhere else but she didn't know where."
She continued, "LaGrange was smashed all to pieces and we didn't have power for a long while. It was a real bad time for all of us.
"There was a lady who was originally from New Jersey who said this was nature's way of pruning trees. We all thought she was crazy."
* * *
Now director of blood services with the Wayne County Chapter of the American Red Cross, Don Best was 19 then and helping the Goldsboro Rescue Squad with emergency calls.
"Every street we started down was covered in trees and live wires," said Best. "We'd start down one street and have to back out and take another detour, only to find another blocked street. It was just awful."
It wasn't just little limbs in the street, he said. "It was either the tree itself or huge limbs that you just couldn't get around. It took chainsaws to cut them up to move them."
The steeple on St. Paul United Methodist Church toppled. The side of the old Opera House Building collapsed and crushed cars on the street. The W.H. Best & Sons warehouse just north of town was destroyed.
After the hurricane, everyone was without electricity. "With no electricity, that meant no one could pump gasoline," he said. "And people were needing gas to get around.
"My dad had a service station at the corner of William and Ash streets. He had a lawnmower engine in the back and he rigged it up to the gas pump with a fan belt so that it would pull the pump on the gas pump. He was able to furnish gasoline to customers that way.
"It was probably four or five days before power was turned back on and he could get back to normal working conditions."
* * *
Leonard Cherry, of Kenansville, was a fourth-grader at Calypso Elementary School that day. Just before lunch, the buses came back to pick everybody up and take them home to ride out the storm and he went home to Beautancus.
"We didn't have radio and TV to tell you where it was and when it was coming," he said. "The winds tore up tobacco barns and blew off rooftops."
Cherry stayed inside the house.
"When the eye came through, everybody went out thinking it was through, and then the back side came through," he said. "They didn't know about storms back then, and they got out riding around looking at damage. Chainy ball (Chinaberry) trees didn't have a chance."
* * *
During the eye, Willie Ray Starling, then 14, and his uncle went to Richard Best's store on Friendship Church Road in Duplin County. The store was ground level on one end and dug into a hill on the other end.
When the winds returned, they picked up the loose end of the store, lifted it and then dropped it back to ground.
"It went up probably six inches," said Starling, now of Mount Olive. "It happened four or five times. It scared me to death."
* * *
Allen R. Overman, a senior at Nahunta High School, was grading tobacco when Hazel hit.
"The wind blew hard for awhile, then calmed down. We thought it had passed. Then the wind hit from the other direction. That took off part of the house top.
"What I remember most was toppling of the WGBR station tower on Highway 70."
Overman lives in Gainesville, Fla., now.
"I have just gone through Frances and Ivan," he said. "But I will always remember Hazel! Neighbors always stick together and make it through, even when nature loses its temper."
* * *
Sylvia House, now of Pikeville, was a sophomore at East Carolina University who was planning a November wedding. She was due to leave after classes that day to go home to Scotland Neck for a wedding shower.
She didn't know if she could make it. But another student from her hometown said, "If I can get through, I'm going and you can come."
So the two set off and ran into many obstacles. "There was a tobacco barn sitting in the middle of the road," she said. But they completed the 40-mile drive in about two hours.
But the shower had been postponed because the electricity was out. And it was out the next night. "So we celebrated by candlelight," she said.
Sylvia and John House will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next month.
* * *
Christine Grant recalled seeing "the wind catching the tops of trees and twisting them, like breaking off cabbages."
She is still amazed that there wasn't more structural damage. "It was mostly the electric lines that were down," she said.
Her husband, J.L. Grant, was an electrician and was out for weeks afterward making repairs. "He'd come in and change clothes because we were still having a lot of rain. He'd grab a mouthful to eat and leave, going until it was too dark to see."
Power was out for at least eight days in many parts of the city and longer in rural areas, she said.
The Grants had a coal stove, perhaps the only one on their block of young working families. "I kept it going all day with pots of beans and stew beef feeding the neighbors. I heated a lot of baby bottles," she said.
* * *
Buddy Allen, 83, sat down in the kitchen of his home near Pikeville last week. A lot of time has passed. Many storms have come and gone. Some have been even worse.
But Hazel remains a bright, burning memory. "I mean it was awful," Allen said, rubbing his forehead with his hand. "Awful."
"That may not have been exactly how it was, but that's how I remember it."
Staff writer Becky Barclay and Bonnie Edwards assisted with this story. Thanks to all the people who called and wrote in response to our request for Hazel memories.
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