1954 was an interesting year. At the time, I was living in Bethesda, Md. — a suburb of Washington, D.C. This was the year of the groundbreaking Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education — a holding that legally ended school segregation. It was the year when four Puerto Rican nationalists shot up the U.S. Senate, wounding five elected members. It was also the year when the polio vaccine was administered to schoolchildren, thus ending the frightening and fairly common crippling disease.
The most interesting event of all was on Oct. 15, 1954, when Hurricane Hazel roared through the Washington, D.C. area. I was only 9 at the time and really didn’t understand the awesome power of nature. I was still consumed with such things as remembering to say the newly inserted words “under God” during the Pledge of Allegiance at Cub Scout meetings.
Just six weeks before, Hurricane Carol had roared up the northern part of the East Coast. We had planned a vacation in Rehoboth Beach, Del. — a couple of days after the storm had passed. I remember strolling on the boardwalk and watching the surf pound against the pilings. The entire beachfront had temporarily disappeared!
The weather report in the Washington Post held no interest for me. I was more concerned with the full-page display ads for the latest 1955 cars coming out of Detroit. (Everyone had gone to wrap-around windshields, except the Lincoln and Kaiser products. The latter would not survive through the model year. In those days, keeping up with yearly styling trends was a must in order to remain competitive.)
My parents did a good job of hiding the danger of the upcoming storm from me. They also hid their own fears as well. Both were from Southern California. Weathering a major hurricane would be a first for them as well.
Suspicions arose when my mother took Dad to the National Naval Medical Center in the middle of the night. This was unusual, and I knew this meant something big was up. He was ordered to stay on duty until the storm passed. When mother returned, my two sisters and I hunkered down in our colonial brick home to prepare for the worst.
The next day, rain intensified and the storm blew into the early night. Winds in the inland Washington area were reported as high as 78 mph. I still had no concept of what could happen. We tried to track the progress of the storm on television, but it wasn’t long before the electricity was lost.
Mom kept us occupied with board games such as “Clue” or “Monopoly.” I got bored with the second one. I knew whoever got “Boardwalk” and “Park Place” would win the game.
Finally, the winds seemed to subside. Mom told us to stay in the house while she went outside to inspect the damage. There was none visible. Therefore, she decided to head for the NNMC to pick up my father. It was just a couple of miles away. I asked if I could join her.
We turned right onto Old Georgetown Road and then left onto Cedar Lane. We only got a few hundred feet when we were stopped by three or four large downed trees, along with some broken power lines. Mother thought it was too dangerous for me to continue with her. I was taken home, and she found a roundabout way to reach her destination.
As I recall, things got back to normal fairly quickly except for the fact that we had no electricity for a week. North and South Carolina were not so lucky. A find of mine had a summer home in Myrtle Beach. It was completely destroyed.
Hurricanes are just part of life when one lives on the East Coast. Every year, it’s a matter of chance as to when or where the next one will strike. Sometimes, it can be years or decades between storms at specific locations.
People in that part of the country told me they didn’t want to live in California because of earthquakes. “At least you can see a hurricane coming,” they used to say.
Well, I guess after this year’s rumbling of Aug. 23, that rationale has now been shaken from the list.
Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.