Long before its worst winds and waves slammed into Hampton Roads on the afternoon of Oct. 15, 1954, Hurricane Hazel was a storm to remember.
And by the time it rumbled away to the north about 6 p.m., it had battered the 100-mph gauges at the Norfolk weather station so badly against the top end of the dial that they had to be replaced. Ditto for the instruments at Langley Air Force Base, which finally failed when the power cut off after sustained winds of 96 mph.
At Old Point Comfort, the gauges recorded gust after gust topping 100 mph -- and a final blow of 130 mph shut the instrument down, the Daily Press reported.
No wonder the powerful storm rivaled the Great Hurricane of August 1933 in the cost of the damages it inflicted on the Peninsula and Hampton Roads -- or that so many people in low-lying Poquoson, Fox Hill, and Grandview were still using the flood waters that surged in with the high tide just about noon as the benchmark to beat when Hurricane Isabel blew in nearly a half-century later.
At Fort Monroe, more than 100 trees came down -- and 500 people had to be evacuated from their homes because of high water.
More trees fell along Chesapeake Avenue and downtown -- where the fierce winds pulled sign after sign down from the exposed store fronts in the King and Queen streets business district, the newspaper reported.
Steady 90-mph-plus winds roared in from the southwest against the shoreline at Newport News all afternoon, toppling a chimney at the Daily Press and sending it plunging through the roof, where it narrowly missed the fleeing compositors on the second floor.
Ten-foot waves tore the 887-foot-long hull of the unfinished battleship Kentucky from its mooring at Newport News Point and set it adrift in the James River, where it wallowed dangerously for more than 1,000 feet -- threatening the docks and the James River Bridge -- before finally running aground.
Not far away the tanker Esso New Jersey broke free from its moorings, too, then crashed into the gates at Dry Dock #2. The ferry Sewell's Point followed not long afterward after tearing loose from Pier 10.
Buckroe Beach amusement park sustained major damage, and the feeble brick walls of the abandoned light house at Grandview broke down in the surf. Dozens of scenic old trees along Cedar Lane lay flattened, while hundreds of others succumbed in a path of destruction that left Richmond Road blocked in Williamsburg.
At Patrick Henry Airport, wind gusts exceeding 65 mph cancelled all but one flight and blew numerous small planes as far as 500 feet from their anchors. The same gusts ripped the roof off the tender's house at the Coleman Bridge and tore up a string of waterfront apartments in Yorktown.
The next day, the tired executives of Virginia Electric Power pronounced the damage to the grid serving the Peninsula as the worst in the company's history.
Many customers remained without power for days because repair crews were stretched across the entire state, the paper reported
Still, Hazel also left some of its victims laughing, including a York County man whose horse's refusal to go back into the barn saved them both when the roof and walls started collapsing.
Then there was the 2-foot-long baby alligator found on a Newport News street after the storm had ended.
Blown in by Hazel from someplace way down South, puzzled residents joked as they speculated how the animal got there, the Daily Press noted.
But no one stepped forward to claim it.
-- Mark St. John Erickson
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