Sixty years ago, Connie Ledgett and her first husband, Jerry Helms, were honeymooning on Oak Island near Wilmington. They had no idea that 140 mile-per-hour winds and an 18-foot storm surge were headed in their direction. That storm was Hurricane Hazel and it would be the strongest category 4 hurricane ever seen in the state. It devastated a 35-mile stretch of the coast.
The newlyweds told National Geographic that they were in their honeymoon cottage listening to records, and they missed the early warnings. (The cottage didn't have television or telephone at the time.) The winds woke them and they knew they had to leave when they could see the ocean above the dunes.
Soon the ocean had risen to the height of second-story windows and the young husband and wife were tied together by a blanket, clinging to a makeshift raft composed of a mattress and a chunk of wall the storm tore from a house. "At that moment we were at the mercy of the wind and water," Ledgett said. "Whatever happened to us then was not in our control."
The hurricane flung the couple into the tops of the scrub oak trees that give the island its name. Ledgett has no idea how long she and her husband clung to the treetops. "Time actually stood still," she said. >> Read the full story.
Now there's a new effort underway, for the 60th anniversary of the storm, to find and preserve first-person stories like these. East Carolina University is organizing the first in a series of events on the topic.
The school's Lauren Gunter is appealing to those who remember that hurricane to come forward with memories.
"We are actually collecting stories and videos, pictures. The National Weather Service has a website where they're collecting all this info and we're helping them develop a site with all the data that has a timeline leading up to when the hurricane struck and also afterwards," she said.
Other events will take place throughout the summer and fall at different venues across Eastern and Central North Carolina.