The year is 1954
Three cottages sit on the Atlantic shore in Cherry Grove
Beach, South Carolina. They are spacious two bedroom structures with large kitchens and are raised on stilt supports which provide a lattice covered enclosure for parking. Numerous windows and a screened-in porch allow for the cool breezes from the ocean. Occupied mainly during the summer months, these cottages are owned by Bertha Pope, my grandmother, and are aptly called Pope's Cottages.
Mrs. Pope, a widow, lives in one cottage and rents the other two out to vacationing families who stay for a week or two each and usually return each summer. As do I. But, I get to stay all summer, on a beach that is mine, or so it seems. I'm almost eleven now and have been treated to these glorious, idyllic summers for as long as I can remember. Driven up every year after school is out and left with Grandma, until I'm picked up and returned to Atlanta at the end of summer. Little do I realize that my idyllic summers are about to end
It's Hurricane Season
It's October and Grandma is still at the beach closing up the cottages with the help of two cousins from nearby Charlotte. Her whole family is aware of the possibility that Hazel is headed her way and rests assured that she too knows of the dangers and hurriedly leaves. But for reasons I still don't know or remember, they aren't privy to the warnings and when the hurricane hits, they are still there!
Like all hurricanes, Hazel began as a tropical disturbance somewhere in the Caribbean. The first land mass she hit was Haiti were she left up to 1000 dead and before her force faltered in Canada, she was responsible for the deaths of hundreds more (Estimates of fatalities varies with sources). She was the worst storm in the history of the Carolinas, up until that time, and her path of destruction still ranks her as one of the most catastrophic hurricanes to strike the U.S. in the Twentieth Century. Cherry Grove is in an area of the coast surrounded by the communities of Myrtle Beach, Ocean Drive, Cresent beach and Windy Hill Beach and this is the area where Hazel first came ashore with winds of 140 miles an hour. It came during daylight and most had been warned and had evacuated. My grandmother and cousins had not.
It was October 15, 1954 and my family and friends were
huddled in my living room watching t.v. and listening for the phone to ring for we had lost touch with grandmother hours before. How the news finally came to us, I don't remember, but I do remember the awe, fright, and joy all mixed, as we heard of the horror they went through and survived. I had, and have lost, the news clippings from the front page of the Charlotte Observer which described their ordeal in vivid detail. I only remember episodes of a car that was eventually flooded and abandonded, episodes of swimming in water that was as high as telephone poles, of continuing to seek shelter in houses that collapsed and eventually ending up in an old church that somehow survived. Go figure.
I don't know exactly how long it was before we were allowed to go up and see the damage, but it couldn't have been long. I remember going through Ocean Drive about ten miles before Cherry Grove and thinking this isn't too bad. All the windows were busted and most of the buildings had tumbled, but I wasn't prepared for the cottages. It was as if some giant had picked up these tiny houses and dropped them upside down. They were just smashed and in splinters with most of the obviously destroyed furniture still in what might be called a cottage. Still huddled in a threesome, the cottages were at least 50 yards from their original location.
Total damage in this area was 24 million dollars and we're talking 1954 dollars! In Myrtle Beach, 273 houses were destroyed, 450 houses in Ocean Drive and in Cherry Grove, 300 houses of the 450 that existed were destroyed. In North Carolina, Hazel's destruction was likened to the battlefields of Europe after World War II. And this was only the beginning of Hazels path across the North American Continent. After leaving the Carolinas, she headed north to Washington, D.C., with winds still gusting to 100 mph. Hazel then continued on her destructive path through Pennsylvania and New York and finally dying out in Toronto, although not until she had caused 81 fatalities there. She destroyed bridges, turned farms into lakes and ravaged entire blocks of homes with flood waters.Over 300 million tons of rain fell on an already water-logged Toronto. Suffice it to say, Hazel remains one of Canada's most remembered storms.
My Grandmother never rebuilt. I've returned to visit that area a couple of times since, but I don't need to tell you that only the memories remain. Those of idyllic childhood summers never to regain.