Larry Penkava Column: Hurricane Hazel’s wrath transformed Myrtle Beach

Published 2:42 pm Friday, September 14, 2018

While Hurricane Florence was tracking toward North Carolina this week, I was reminded of this column of mine that appeared Oct. 15, 2014, the 60th anniversary of Hurricane Hazel hitting the Carolinas coast:

The summer of 1954 was when I first saw the ocean. I was 7 years old and my family vacationed at Myrtle Beach.

Larry Penkava

I remember arriving on Ocean Boulevard and my father driving the car up to a beachfront cottage. It was like a home with a kitchen, living room, bedrooms and an enclosed porch facing the ocean.

I was fascinated at the sight of blue water stretching from horizon to horizon. And the phenomenon of the waves washing the sand from around my feet still intrigues me to this day.

The ocean was our oyster and we spent plenty of time on the beach and in the water. I can recall moving out into the waves to the point that I couldn’t find the ocean floor with my feet.

Seeing me flounder, my father grabbed me and held me up against the onrushing waves.

My family went up the boardwalk to the Pavilion. I was mesmerized watching a man playing a pinball machine, flipping the handles to keep the ball in motion and score points, accentuated by the sound of the bell.

The hall of mirrors transformed me and my brothers into comical figures — way short, way tall or completely disfigured.

We spent most of a week at Myrtle, then drove back home to our regular lives.

On Oct. 15 of that year, Hurricane Hazel, a Category 4 storm, devastated Myrtle.
Barbara F. Stokes, author of “Greetings From Myrtle Beach: A History, 1900-1980,” said, “The devastation of Hazel cleared the way to transform Myrtle Beach from a quiet summer colony to a national resort destination.”

Indeed, those quaint beach cottages destroyed by Hazel would be replaced by modern hotels and high-rises. Roads into Myrtle had made it a verifiable vacation spot.

It was 10 years later that I returned to Myrtle Beach, a rising high school senior bent on one last fling before my final year of high school. My buddy and I stayed at a boarding house a block from the beach.

By then there were multi-storied hotels on Ocean Boulevard and none of the cottages that dominated the beach before Hazel changed the face of Myrtle. The Pavilion had been rebuilt and I spent much of my time watching sketch artist Mac Miller doing his magic. Wish I had invested in a sketch of my own.

It was 30 years later that I returned to Myrtle. By then it was a thriving tourist attraction that drew visitors year-round.

Myrtle Beach has become a yearly mecca for me. It’s appeal remains the ocean, but the attractions have multiplied.

But I’m still trying to triangulate the spot of that boarding house where I stayed in ‘64. I think I’ve found it, but I’m not quite sure.

One thing that’s without question: the cottage where my family stayed in 1954 was probably replaced long ago by a high-rise hotel.

Because Hazel changed the face of Myrtle Beach.

As Stokes said, “Myrtle Beach’s transformation was well under way before Hazel. The hurricane only accelerated the process.”

Even Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which passed through Myrtle causing a great deal of damage, was only a passing fancy. Hotels were soon renovated and back in business.

But Hazel left a mark that was permanent. The Myrtle Beach of today is a direct product of that legendary storm.

Larry Penkava, who has written Now and Then since 1994, saw Hazel’s widespread wrath in uprooted trees in his neighborhood, three hours from Myrtle.