50 years later | Hurricane Hazel didn’t destroy Myrtle Beach area’s resolve

By midday on Oct. 15, 1954, one of Myrtle Beach’s now-iconic, family-owned businesses was nothing but a hole in the ground.

But the family, two quickly-hired spectators and a few others immediately began cleaning up and preparing to rebuild The Gay Dolphin Gift Cove.

Hurricane Hazel, which arrived as a Category 4 storm right at the South Carolina-North Carolina state line at 9:15 a.m. on that day, wrecked coastal buildings between Georgetown and Wilmington.

The strongest hurricane ever known to hit North Carolina also killed 19 people there, most of them on the Brunswick County islands.

Not only was it a strong storm, it arrived at the peak of a seasonal high tide, pushing a huge wall of water in front of it. Storm surges of 12 feet in Pawleys Island, up to 21 feet on the Brunswick islands, caused most of the damage and deaths.

Hazel packed 140-mile winds when it made landfall. Then, unlike most hurricanes, it refused to let up. It ravaged a swath all the way into Canada, causing record-breaking floods and high winds in its path and killing even more people.

The National Hurricane Center still ranks it as the 25th deadliest storm to hit the U.S. mainland, and the 16th most intense.

Newspaper reports of the day said that only two houses were left standing on Pawleys Island’s north end. A new inlet was cut into the south end. It was later filled in and new houses built on top of it, but Hurricane Hugo cut the island again in the same spot.

McKenzie Beach, along with Atlantic Beach one of only two places where blacks could go to the beach during the days of segregation, was destroyed. It has never been rebuilt, and a remnant of its motel can still be seen.

Of 275 houses on Garden City Beach, only three were liveable. Of 70 houses at Surfside Beach, only three or four were liveable.

Damages were more severe moving northward closer to where the storm made landfall. Almost every structure east of Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach was destroyed or damaged. Of the 89 houses at Windy Hill, 50 were destroyed. At Atlantic Beach, 25 homes were destroyed. Of 200 houses at Crescent Beach, only two were left and they were damaged. Tilghman Beach had 50 of 100 homes demolished, the rest were damaged.

At Cherry Grove, the first two rows were wiped out.

Brunswick County’s beaches and islands fared worse. Most were wiped nearly clean by the storm surge which may have reached 22 feet.

Three couples from High Point, N.C. were trapped in a house on Ocean Isle Beach, then washed away by a tidal wave, along with members of a neighboring family. One of the couples survived, but the other two left eight orphans back home.

A honeymooning couple on Oak Island were also washed up in a tidal wave but managed to tie themselves together with a blanket and cling to trees until the storm passed. Oak Island, then known as Long Beach, was also wiped clean.

Hazel was not expected to hit land until the evening before it did. Hurricane prediction was not as accurate then as it is now, but people did know there was a hurricane in the Atlantic. It had destroyed three towns in Haiti and killed up to 1,000 people there. An exact number of fatalities was never determined.

Then, instead of heading into the Gulf of Mexico and weakening as expected, the storm made a sudden right turn and headed north. Still, it was expected to pass the Carolinas coast out at sea.

Late in the afternoon of Oct. 14, Myrtle Beach and other coastal towns were notified that Hazel appeared to be turning toward the coast. By midnight, word came that Hazel appeared to turn toward the Myrtle Beach area but was still expected to stay out at sea.

Myrtle Beach Mayor Ernest Williams ordered police officers and firefighters to spread the word. Shelters were set up, and people were asked to go to those. Airmen at the radar station that later became an Air Force Base also helped evacuate people and maintain communications.

But it was not until 5:45 a.m. that local authorities were notified that Hazel was definitely headed for the Myrtle Beach area, and it was moving fast. By then, most everyone along the beachfront had been evacuated.

Buz Plyler was only 5 years old, but he remembers the event like it just happened, he said this week. His family’s eight-year-old business, now known as the Gay Dolphin Gift Cove, was in peril.

``My mother and father worked like hell to prepare for it,’’ he said. They tried to save their goods by loading them into a truck they backed up to the oceanfront store.

When they started, there was ``a very, very light mist,’’ Plyler said. But the wind and rain steadily worsened.

``We continued to work until a 55-gallon drum broke through a concrete block wall,’’ then they and their truck full of merchandise headed to the shelter at what was then Myrtle Beach Grade School. The Post Office now sits on that site.

After the storm was over, the family headed to the store.

``The shop was gone. It just completely disappeared,’’ Plyler said.

But his family, like many other business owners and residents, quickly began to clean up, and the recovery process began.

At the Gay Dolphin, there is a basement the Plylers made of the hole that was left when the old store blew away. It is partially built with concrete blocks and joists gathered in the debris.

Plyler’s father, Justin Plyler Sr., told the Myrtle Beach News a week after the storm that they had spent all week in salvage operations. He said the kiddie rides at the former amusement park next to the store were in good shape and open for business.

``We’re repairing larger rides. We are getting organized so that we may make plans,’’ Plyler Sr. said.

And the store and amusement park were up and running again when the summer came, said Buz Plyler, who still manages the family business.

And so were most of the local attractions and businesses, though it took longer for the Brunswick beaches to recover.

Leaders knew they had to rebuild and be ready for tourism again, because that was what drove the local economy. The National Guard and Army Corps of Engineers came to clean up debris and clear the roads so property owners could rebuild.

``It was surprising that they were able to clean it up as fast as they did,’’ Plyler said.

The beach was able to recover as quickly as it did because it was all small, family-owned businesses at the time, and many people did their own work, he recalled.

Leaders quickly decided to put a positive spin on the need to rebuild.

``Out of the damage which we have sustained, Myrtle Beach will build an even greater city for the future,’’ the mayor said only a few days after the storm.

``The spirit of determination and progress which has been so characteristic of Myrtle Beach’s rapid growth during its young life will, I feel sure, again assert itself.’’

The Myrtle Beach Sun editorialized five days after the hurricane that the storm’s result ``will probably be that this city is rebuilt more beautiful than ever, with bigger and better-constructed oceanfront hotels, guest houses and private homes.

``Throughout the entire stricken area there is an attitude among the citizens, not only of hope, but determination to build back,’’ the editorial said.

The storm did mark the end of an old Myrtle Beach, the one that began to be known in the 1930s, and to be built with small hotels and guest houses to accommodate visitors.

It was the end of an era and the beginning of a new one, Plyler said.

``It was devastating in terms of the damage to the old summer buildings,’’ the ones that characterized Myrtle Beach for decades, he said.

But it turned out to be ``a positive thing for Myrtle Beach,’’ he also said.

The rebuilding became one of the city’s surges in growth that have occurred about every 10 to 15 years since.

Nothing like Hazel had hit the Carolinas coast since the Great Hurricane of 1893, which killed what is believed to be hundreds, if not thousands, of people caught unaware. That one had a storm surge so high that those who survived it said the ocean and Waccamaw River joined across Waccamaw Neck.

But as unusual as Hazel was, people who live along the coast should expect to be ready for something like it to come again, Plyler said.

If you live on the coast, ``you have to build your life with the expectation that you will have strong storms,’’ he said.

Contact Zane Wilson at xtsnscribe@aol.com.