Many remember South Carolina’s last direct hit from a major hurricane. That came in 1989, when Category 4 Hurricane Hugo swept up the Caribbean and pummeled Charleston with up to 16 feet of storm surge and destroyed thousands of homes.
But Hurricane Florence’s more northerly approach, which may mostly spare the Lowcountry and take a more direct aim at the Myrtle Beach area, tracks closer to another, less-often recalled major South Carolina storm: Hurricane Hazel.
Hazel, another Category 4 hurricane with winds reaching 150 mph, leveled almost the entire Myrtle Beach coastline of single-family clapboard beach shacks and mom-and-pop motels in 1954.
It’s the storm that prompted a near complete redevelopment of Myrtle Beach, a transformation of much of the area from quaint beach town to what's now the state’s top tourist draw.
“Really, it was the birth of the modern Grand Strand,” said state Rep. Alan Clemmons, a Myrtle Beach Republican.
But before that transformation, there was destruction.
Tracking nearly straight up through the Carolinas from the Caribbean, Hazel’s ferocious winds wiped out rows of beach homes two blocks deep in Cherry Grove, just north of Myrtle Beach, according to published reports. It leveled dozens of homes at nearby Windy Hill, tore out the underpinnings of 25 homes at Atlantic Beach and destroyed almost all of the 200 homes at Crescent Beach — all on the north side of the Strand.
Virtually every structure east of Myrtle Beach’s Ocean Boulevard was gone.
Jack Thompson and his family took shelter at the Myrtle Beach Grade School. A young photographer, Thompson ventured to the Second Avenue Pier during the storm. He watched a wave break over the top of the pier’s bait house, several stories above sea level, before the whole structure floated away.
He returned to the beach at daybreak. The tide was so low the ocean looked like it was a mile away, he said. The sand gone, the beach had been reduced to something that looked like ash, with kitchen appliances and cars strewn about.
“It was a nightmare,” Thompson, 82, said. “But I fear that Hazel is going to be nothing like what Florence might be.”
Florence intensified Tuesday into a Category 4 hurricane, with its lateral approach from the Atlantic aimed at the Grand Strand and the North Carolina border.
The storm will likely make landfall as just the fourth modern hurricane to strike the Carolinas with an intensity on the Saffir-Simpson scale as high as Category 4 with sustained winds of at least 130 mph, joining Hugo in the 1980s, along with Hazel and Hurricane Gracie in the 1950s.
The conditions that fueled Hazel in 1954 are the same for Florence today — namely warm ocean water and not enough wind pressure to blow apart Florence’s massive swirl. Other, smaller hurricanes that approach the East Coast are steered out to sea by jet streams.
To produce historic storms like Hazel and Florence, "you just need a couple of weird things to happen," said Cary Mock, a University of South Carolina geography professor who has studied hurricanes.
But Hazel was historic for Myrtle Beach in other ways, too.
After the storm's destruction, instead of cleaning up the rubble, many owners sold their beach property to real estate developers. Pretty soon, developers were combining the area’s 60-foot single family beach lots to make way for bigger motels.
Also buoyed by the area’s golf boom of the 1960s, larger motels and hotels began to pop up. A town that had largely been a second vacation home for South Carolinians became a major U.S. attraction. The area is now largely dotted with beach hotels and condo towers.
Myrtle Beach also learned its lesson from Hazel and adopted stricter rules to keep coastal buildings more capable of withstanding high hurricane winds, Clemmons said.
“Before (Hazel) you could build whatever you could afford on the beach,” he said.
But there’s little that any building code can do to prevent damage from the kind of storm surge that Florence could produce along the Carolina coast.
Forecasters haven’t determined exact projections for the Myrtle Beach area, but expect “a life-threatening storm surge” along some parts of the South Carolina coastline and other areas, according to the National Hurricane Center. Horry County emergency officials said Monday that Florence could be remembered like Hazel based on current forecasts.
“One never feels comfortable when a hurricane is approaching, regardless of how well-built the building is,” Clemmons said.