‘Benchmark hurricane’: A deadly Hurricane Hazel slammed the Grand Strand 65 years ago

There is no question that Hurricane Hugo destroyed the South Carolina coast 30 years ago, but before Hugo, a more destructive and deadly hurricane slammed the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, area and beyond.

Sixty-five years ago Tuesday, Hurricane Hazel made landfall as a Category 4 storm, just north of Myrtle Beach on the state line, causing more than 90 deaths in the Carolinas and destroying about 90 percent of oceanfront property from Little River to Pawleys Island.

The day before the storm made landfall, the U.S. Weather Bureau, now known as the National Weather Service, issued a warning for the Carolinas, according to the NWS’s online overview of Hazel. Forecasters thought the hurricane’s eye would stay offshore and weaken, but the storm took a northwest turn and headed toward land, the NWS reports.

Massive evacuations were ordered along the coast.

The storm made landfall on the morning of Oct. 15, battering South Carolina and North Carolina. Hazel nearly wiped out Garden City Beach and a peak wind gust of 106 mph was reported in Myrtle Beach, the weather service said. Hazel continued north over Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and New York, bringing wind gusts reported near 100 mph, according to the NWS, and a peak wind gust of 113 mph in New York City.

“While many South Carolinians think of Hugo as the worst hurricane to hit the Grand Strand, Hurricane Hazel was actually worse and is considered the benchmark hurricane for this area,” said WPDE meteorologist Ed Piotrowski.

Hazel’s path, via National Hurricane Center.jpg
National Hurricane Center

Hazel produced an 18-foot storm surge just over the state line in North Carolina, Piotrowski said, making it the second-highest storm surge on record for the East Coast. The highest storm surge is 20 feet in Bulls Bay when Hugo made landfall in 1989, he said.

In Hazel’s path to the Grand Strand, it blazed over Haiti, killing between 400 and 1,000 people, according to the weather service.

Along with deaths in the Carolinas, several hundred people were injured. The NWS reports that damages in the Carolinas amounted to $163 million, with $61 million of that being beach property damage. Total damage estimates across Hazel’s path was $308 million.

When Hazel hit, there was not as much built in the area.

“If the same hurricane hit the Grand Strand today, it would be much worse than Hugo was for us,” Piotrowski said.

The Sun News Reporter Hannah Strong is passionate about making the world better through what she reports and writes. Strong, who is a Pawleys Island native, is quick to jump on breaking news, profiles stories about people in the community and obituaries. Strong has won four S.C. Press Association first-place awards, including one for enterprise reporting after riding along with police during a homicide. She earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Winthrop University.