History with ‘Hud’: Most memorable hurricanes to strike Cape Fear

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — June 1st is the official start of Hurricane Season, which runs for the next 182 days through November 30th.

The Cape Fear has been spared a major blow from a hurricane since Isaias struck in 2020, but several storms over the years have made their lasting mark.

Since tropical systems began receiving names in 1953, the strongest storm to strike was Hurricane Hazel in 1954. It hit in October with winds of 140 miles per hour, and remains the only category 4 hurricane to ever make landfall in the Cape Fear, bringing a record-breaking 18-foot storm surge to Calabash.

Many beaches were all but erased, with only 12 of Holden Beach’s 300 cottages remaining afterwards.

The area was nearly dealt another major hurricane blow four years later, when Hurricane Helene moved within 20 miles of the coast in September of 1958. Despite not making landfall, Helene brought the strongest wind gust ever recorded in Wilmington of 135 miles per hour, leading to widespread power outages.

The next threat of a major hurricane landfall didn’t come until 1984, when Hurricane Diana moved by as a category four storm, before looping off the Cape Fear coast and eventually making landfall as a weaker, but still powerful, category two storm.

Diana held winds of 100 miles per hour at landfall, and brought over a foot of rain to parts of the area.

Hurricane Hugo brought widespread impacts five years later in 1989. Although the eye of the category four storm moved ashore in South Carolina, the system still wiped out sand dunes along Brunswick County beaches and destroyed the end of the Holden Beach fishing pier.

1996 would turn out to be a big time hurricane year for the Cape Fear. Hurricane Bertha struck as a category two storm on July 12th, knocking off 75 feet of the Johnnie Mercer Pier and ripping the roofs off 25 percent of houses in North Topsail Beach.

Just 55 days later, Hurricane Fran roared ashore at a category three, with winds of 115 miles per hour.

Coming on the heels of Bertha, Fran brought major damage to coastal zones which had seen their dunes washed away two months prior. It also toppled a 200-foot, 130-year-old steeple from the First Baptist Church in Wilmington. Thankfully, Fran remains the only major hurricane besides Hazel to make landfall in the Cape Fear.

A slightly weaker category two Hurricane Bonnie struck in 1998, with surge along the coast recorded at 5 to 8 feet. Dunes rebuilt from Fran two years earlier were destroyed again in Topsail Beach. The storm brought significant crop damage to inland communities and over 14 inches of rain to Wilmington.

Hurricane Floyd became the last hurricane to hit the Cape Fear in the 20th century, making landfall with 105 mph sustained winds in September of 1999. Floyd helped spawn over a dozen tornadoes across eastern North Carolina and dropped the most rainfall ever on a single day in the Port City of 13.38”.

The Cape Fear would go nearly two more decades before seeing another impactful system, until Hurricane Matthew approached in 2016. It became the first October hurricane to make landfall north of Florida since Hazel, coming ashore in South Carolina.

But the impacts from Matthew spread far to the north. A 150-foot section of the Oak Island Pier was swept away by the high waves, and many towns such as Fair Bluff are still recovering from the damage flooding brought.

But as much rain as Matthew brought, it was far-exceeded by Hurricane Florence just two years later. The category one storm moved ashore near Wrightsville Beach on September 14th, slowing to a crawl as it pushed inland. Florence drenched the area with feet of rain, leading to just over 23 inches of rain in Wilmington – the most ever from a single system.

Continuing the trend of storms impacting the Cape Fear every two years, Hurricane Isaias made landfall in August of 2020 near Ocean Isle Beach with winds of 85 miles per hour. Brunswick County took the brunt of the system, with significant storm surge leaving damage in many beach towns.

Luckily, the Cape Fear has only seen indirect impacts from tropical systems since Isaias. While an average hurricane season is predicted for 2023, it only takes one storm to make it a very memorable year.

Here’s the list of storm names for the 2023 Hurricane Season:

Hurricane Names

Meteorologist Matthew Huddleston (‘Hud’) has always had two major loves – weather and history. While you can watch him talk about weather each evening on WWAY, he looks forward to bringing you a little piece of history each Thursday on WWAY’s website.


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