Hazel, Isabel, Gaston: Williamsburg area has weathered many a hurricane

Williamsburg has probably had only one direct hurricane hit in the last 100 years: Hazel arrived on Oct. 15, 1954. Many residents believed a portion of the eye passed over the city.

A Virginia Gazette story after the storm reported, “The hurricane roared through between 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. after which the city received a false calm before the tail end, called the ‘whiplash,’ struck somewhere around 4:30 p.m. and lasted approximately an hour. This caused as much or more damage as the original part of the storm.”

In those days, hurricane forecasting was difficult at best; descriptions were few and disparate, and record keeping was in its infancy. The National Hurricane Center was not established until 1965.

Williamsburg wound up in Hazel’s path after the storm made landfall near the North Carolina/South Carolina state line as a Category 4 hurricane with winds clocked at 140 mph. It immediately began to travel up the Atlantic coast.

Hazel’s storm surge severely damaged the North Carolina, Virginia and Delaware coasts. In some locations, entire sections of oceanfront homes and businesses were destroyed.

Inland in the Williamsburg area and other regions, the brunt of the hurricane damage was wind related. A Virginia Gazette headline captured the scene: “Wrenched Trees, Bashed Automobiles – City Crews, Utility Workers Swamped.”

At the College of William and Mary, many old elms and silver maples on the main campus were “left shorn or completely broken,” while hundreds of trees were damaged or uprooted in the Lake Matoaka woods. In town, damaged trees blocked nearly every street.

The Gazette reported that a pair of “treasured” pecan trees in the St. George Tucker House yard, were stripped of their branches. The trees had been given to Tucker by Thomas Jefferson in the late eighteenth century.

Electricity in the small town was out for several days, along with the telephone system. The college and city power plants and other buildings and homes suffered damage from the hurricane winds that ranged about 75 mph. Norfolk reported winds from Hazel of 100 mph, while Hampton had gusts to 130 mph.

A tug boat capsized in the James River, west of Williamsburg and four people died. Piers and docks were demolished along Tidewater rivers

City police reported that a dozen cars “were smashed by falling trees and limbs, some of them being total wrecks.” Williamsburg schools were open the morning of the storm, but students went home before noon, just a few hours before the hurricane struck.

The Daily Press reported in its Oct. 17 edition that “most people agreed [Hazel] was worse in [wind] power than the August 1933 hurricane in this area.”

Now called the Great Hurricane, it struck on Aug. 23 in northeastern North Carolina and moved quickly northward over Norfolk and up the Chesapeake Bay with winds of 90-plus mph. Storm surges ranged from four to eight feet along the path. Rainfall was between 10 and 13 inches and inland flooding was great, especially along the James River as far west as Richmond. Flooding was so bad in some Tidewater areas that when the water receded, fish were left in the city streets.

Other notable storms

More recently, the worst hurricane was Isabel that struck on Sept. 18, 2003, and, in retrospect, rivaled the Great Hurricane and Hazel in strength and damage. Again, for Williamsburg damage came from wind and rain.

Just 16 miles away at Gloucester Point, hurricane winds were recorded at 91 mph, and the storm surge nearly covered Jamestown Island and was felt westward. The marina at the Benjamin Harrison Bridge that connects Charles City and Prince George counties was nearly destroyed and many boats severely damaged.

At Yorktown, high tides combined with storm surges on the York River struck wharfs and coastal buildings, like the famed Nick’s Seafood Pavilion that sustained heavy damages and did not reopen. The ferry dock at Jamestown was smashed, and a section of its bridge was knocked off its foundation.

Another past hurricane that caused wind damage in the area was Donna, which hit on Oct. 15, 1960. Only a category 1 hurricane, it caused power and communications disruption for several days. Winds damaged the old Stockade Drive-in Theater, where KFC is now on Richmond Road, as portions of its fence were destroyed. Although some parts of the movie screen were lost, the theater reopened the next day.

In the city’s Historic Area, a number of the historic paper mulberry trees — at least one planted by Thomas Jefferson — were uprooted or suffered severe loss of limbs.

Another hurricane to remember was Floyd, which struck on Sept. 6, 1999 and tracked much like Donna.

There were high winds and heavy rain in the Williamsburg area, but the great threat was across the James River in Franklin, where the Blackwater River reached 100-year flood levels. Downtown Franklin was under 12 feet of water. The area was isolated for many days by the flood that washed out several major roads.

Other hurricanes worth a mention include:

>> Cleo on Sept. 1, 1964, that brought little wind, but the most rain on record in the area since recordkeeping began in 1871. Between 10-14 inches of rain were reported in less than 12 hours.

>> Gaston on Aug. 30, 2004, like Cleo, released massive amounts of rain.

>> Irene on Aug. 27, 2011, had winds gusting to 70-80 mph and more heavy rain.

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