Last week at this time, we were assessing the damage caused by Hurricane Irene. This storm created major damage and even deaths. In some areas in and around our city, streets and homes were flooded. People drove miles to purchase generators to operate sump pumps, just in case they lost power. Television showed water up to the roofs of automobiles; other footage showed trees on top of automobiles. Trees were down, power was out and the rainfall was relentless.
Someone commented that Hurricane Irene had to have helped the economy if the bare shelves, particularly in supermarkets, were any indicator. Before the hurricane arrived, I attempted to purchase batteries, and while I found some, there were no “D” batteries anywhere. As a result of this hurricane, SEPTA suspended bus, trolley and train service, malls, stores and restaurants closed early and church services were canceled.
There was an eerie feeling last Saturday evening as I awaited Hurricane Irene. It was both tense and stressful. I made the mistake of focusing on news reports. I went from one station to another hoping for a sign the hurricane was diminishing. Having had significant damage to my property in the past, due to a large number of falling trees, I moved automobiles from my driveway to a local parking lot. I even slept in the basement, fearing there would again be trees falling on my property. I did all the things that were recommended; flashlights stored in a handy location with a stash of new batteries; a battery-operated radio available; a full tank of gas; cash in the event ATM machines were inoperative; a charged mobile telephone; nonperishable foods on hand; a fresh shower, just in case!
Late Sunday morning, as I listened to the news and then surveyed my property, I was thankful my family was not a victim of the worst things related to this hurricane and was mindful that not everyone was as fortunate. News reports resurrected names of past hurricanes. Do you recall Hurricane Dog in 1950? What about Hurricane Carol of 1953 and Hurricane Hazel of 1954? Other major hurricanes that may be familiar to you are Hurricanes Edna, Donna, Esther and Bertha. Hurricane Belle of 1976 will always be special for me as well as Hurricane Gloria of 1985. Those are the names of my mother and wife, respectively. Last week news reports gave considerable attention to Hurricane Floyd that impacted the East Coast from Sept. 14–18, 1999. It created extensive damage, with 15 to 20 inches of rain; it caused extensive crop damage, infrastructure destruction and related deaths. The flood damage to and loss of homes was estimated at nearly $6 billion.
Hurricane Irene has caused me to go back in time to the hurricane that is most outstanding in my mind; the one I recall being discussed most by my parents and members of my family. I was led to believe that this was the hurricane of all hurricanes. How many of you remember Hurricane Hazel of back in the day?
I was a freshman at West Philadelphia High School 1954. It was on Friday, Oct. 15, 1954 that Hurricane Hazel made its presence known and felt on the East Coast. Hurricane Hazel impacting our city on a Friday and Hurricane Irene on a Saturday provided the same benefit; most of us did not have to deal with i getting to and from work. Also, there was a small window for residents to devote full time to dealing with cleanup. Hurricane Hazel was one monster of a storm.
Hurricane Hazel killed as many as 1,000 people in Haiti before coming ashore in North Carolina. This storm brought winds of 150 miles per hour in North Carolina and 100 miles per hour in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and New York. It left a path of destruction, with 600 dead and damages that exceeded $350 million. Those who lived through this storm may best remember it for the dark clouds and the darkness that evening of Oct. 15, and wind gusts from 75 to 100 miles per hour. Documented reports clocked winds at Philadelphia International Airport at 94 miles per hour. Every time I hear the word hurricane, my thoughts go back to Hurricane Hazel. I had completely ignored one unusual aspect of Hurricane Hazel until I was in the midst of writing this column. I ask you, how many major hurricanes can you think of that arrived in mid-October?
Anyone who remembers Hurricane Hazel can tell you about the damage incurred in Philadelphia. You will hear horrific stories, not about flooding and water damage, as there was not a great deal of rain, but about wind damage and power loss. Many remember the impact of Hurricane Hazel even though it was more than 50 years ago. Friends have shared with me their memories of metal trashcans being tossed around in their neighborhoods, awnings being ripped away from their windows and trees and tree limbs scattered all over the city. I read where a youngster had a wooden playhouse that was reduced to a pile of rubble by this hurricane. A co-worker, asked about his memories of Hurricane Hazel, talked about the destruction of the tent his father had put up in his backyard. Several blocks from the Tribune’s offices, in the 1100 block of South Street, residents saw the destruction of the Standard Theater. The damage was so severe the structure had to be demolished. Situations such as these added to the view that Hurricane Hazel was the “granddaddy” of all hurricanes, even though it only ranked third in modern hurricane history and fifth among storms. It is felt that if the region along the East Coast had been more developed in 1954, Hurricane Hazel would be ranked higher on the list, as it still holds the record for the highest wind gusts in the region. If you have some doubt about the strength and impact of Hurricane Hazel, just consider this: Hurricane Hazel was so fierce that its name was retired. No North Atlantic hurricane can bear this name again.
I acknowledged earlier that I have faint memories of Hurricane Hazel. However, activities and my behavior in preparation for last week’s Hurricane Irene did jog my memory of things from the past. A friend told me how she went to the supermarket the evening before Hurricane Irene only to find the shelves were literally bare. She was told to come back the next day. She managed to leave with two bananas; bananas that were only available because they were so ripe that no one wanted them. Such an experience took me back to my parents’ behavior prior to Hurricane Hazel. I can recall standing in long lines with my mother as my father waited outside in his automobile. Just like today, people were in a panic; they were buying everything. Just as I recall my father “battening down the hatch,” last Saturday, I too found myself tying down everything outside my home that moved — deck furniture, potted flowers, my grandson’s lacrosse stand, anything and everything. I knew I was back in the day during the Hurricane Hazel era when I thought about filling up the bathtub with water for use in emergency situations. Our parents did this back then, for flushing the toilet and using it for drinking once it had been boiled. My behavior was no different in preparing for Hurricane Irene than what I recall my parents experiencing in preparing for Hurricane Hazel, back in the day.
Without question, a hurricane, whether it is Category 1 or Category 5 or just a tropical storm, can be devastating. If Hurricane Irene is the first major hurricane you have experienced in recent years, perhaps you should take this opportunity to make a list of the things you should do, the things you should not do and the things needed in and around the home so your next hurricane experience will be far better than last weekend’s, or more important, than those of Hurricane Hazel or any other hurricane from back in the day.
Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.