Hazel recalls state's stormy past


October 05, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Defend you from seasons such as this?

- William Shakespeare, "King Lear"

Marylanders get nervous, and deservedly so, when reports begin circulating about spawning hurricanes in the warm waters of the South Atlantic latitudes with an eventual northward run a distinct possibility.

And with good reason. Old-timers still have vivid memories of the great storms that raked the state in 1933, 1936, 1938 and 1944.

Others recall the great "Ash Wednesday Storm" of March 5-9, 1962. It wasn't a hurricane, but it managed to inflict an estimated $6.5 million damage in Ocean City before continuing its destructive track up the Eastern Seaboard.

Some 122 lost their lives in Hurricane Agnes in 1972, 21 in Maryland alone. The storm caused $3.2 billion in property damage and was the nation's costliest natural disaster until Hurricane Andrew hit the East Coast in 1992.

The hurricane season of 1954 produced a trio of deadly storms whose gentle names belied their collective ferocity - Edna, Carol and Hazel.

Edna was followed by Carol and then Hazel came "crashing up the coast like a `screaming freight train,' as one writer put it, crashing dunes twenty feet high, crushing houses and creasing roads," wrote authors Larry Savadove and Margaret Thomas Bucholz in their 1993 book, Great Storms of the Jersey Shore.

"It had killed a thousand people in Haiti, burying some two hundred of them under a mudslide. It dropped 11 inches of rain on the Carolinas, set records for wind speed in Washington, D.C., and in New York City, and lived for two raging weeks, even though half of that was over land, which usually cripples hurricanes.

"On its way it deposited palm fronds and wooden bowls marked `Made in Haiti.' Even after two weeks it could dump enough rain on Toronto, Canada, to wash away buildings and bridges to the tune of $100 million," observed Savadove and Bucholz.

Weather experts explained that Hazel's sustained overland power was due to the "tremendous energy" it built up during its long sojourn over warm, tropical waters.

Hazel veered inland over Myrtle Beach, S.C., and charged up the Carolinas and Virginia.

By the afternoon of Oct. 15, Hazel's winds were gusting to over 60 mph, toppling pedestrians waiting for streetcars in Baltimore. A plate glass window on the front of a North Eutaw Street furniture store shattered and injured no one.

At the Naval Academy, the USS Rina Mercdes, the famous old training ship with 52 men aboard, parted its moorings and drifted out into the Severn River before being safely towed back.

Toppled trees caused widespread power and telephone outages throughout the state. High water and floods surged through Western Maryland.

Fifteen Pennsylvania Railroad passenger trains were delayed, some for as long as 12 hours.

In a bizarre twist, which some ascribed to Hazel, Charles R. Nicholas, 44, a Chicago businessman, found himself blown off a passenger train in the Hoffman Street tunnel.

Nicholas had boarded the northbound Patriot at Pennsylvania Station, and was standing in the crowded vestibule of the train's dining car when he was suddenly sucked out of a door.

"I was standing in the vestibule and the next thing I remember I was going through the air and under the train," he told The Sun.

Stunned, he remained between the rails as the remaining cars passed over him, and then got up and walked out of the tunnel. He wandered into an East Baltimore drugstore where the pharmacist called police.

Nicholas, who had survived the invasion of Anzio during World War II, was taken to St. Joseph Hospital for examination, and found none the worse for his truncated rail journey.

Hazel pounded the Eastern Shore, inflicting particularly heavy damage in Dorchester and Somerset counties. Oyster and crab houses were leveled by the winds, which also wreaked havoc on the poultry industry.

"Poultry men explained that one reason for their great losses is the fact that their great rows of chicken houses are constructed of light material; the battering winds, raging as high as 90 miles an hour, blew roofs away, collapsed the houses and set the chickens adrift," reported The Sun.

One of the oddest happenings produced by the storm took place on the Eastern Shore. A 25-ton railroad boxcar, wafted along by Hazel's winds, rolled along unattended at speeds upward of 40 mph between Sudlersville and Millington, when it finally derailed.

The Weather Bureau noted that the center of the hurricane swept past Baltimore at 6:42 p.m. on Oct. 15. It issued a terse comment on Hazel's visit: "Baltimore has had it."

Two other freakish events were left in Hazel's wake.

Watermen could find no oysters to harvest in Anne Arundel, Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties. Officials explained that they were either covered up by sands whipped up by the winds, washed from their beds to other areas of the bay or buried in mud washed in by turbulent waters.

Another problem caused by the storm was the salty rains, blown in from the ocean and Chesapeake Bay, coating TV antennas, disrupting reception.

Maryland's death toll from Hazel was 12.

In Baltimore's hospitals, 17 babies were born during the hurricane, and not one was named Hazel.

However, Mrs. Myra Wire chose a weather-related name for the child she delivered at Mercy Hospital at the height of the storm. She named her daughter Gale.

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