(Editor’s note: This week, we present you with two “archived articles of the week.” Both are about Hurricane Emily, which sent a storm surge of historical proportions over the southern end of Hatteras Island on Aug. 31, 1993. It was my first hurricane after I moved to Hatteras Island in 1991, and I remember it today as if it was yesterday. The second article was written by the late Linda Nunn, who talked to many islanders 10 years later about their memories of the storm.)
When all was said and done and the facts and figures analyzed, Wally DeMaurice, who was director of the National Weather Service Office in Buxton when the storm hit in 1993, declared Emily the “hurricane of the century” — at least for the lower part of Hatteras Island.
DeMaurice said in an interview after the storm that the eye of the hurricane came within 13 miles of Cape Hatteras in the early evening of Tuesday, Aug. 31, 1993. The lower villages from Avon to Hatteras were in the storm’s west eyewall for about 11/2 hours. During that time, the villages were battered with sustained winds of hurricane force, or 74 mph.
The wind instruments at the National Weather Service in Buxton stopped functioning about 6 p.m. when flood waters from the Pamlico Sound got telephone lines wet. The highest gust measured at the office before that time was 98 mph.
A wind gauge at Fox Watersports in Buxton, which DeMaurice said was “very reliable,” measured a gust of 107 at 6:12 p.m. The winds at the Diamond Shoals tower, which was very close to the eye, were clocked at 142.
DeMaurice said he has had reports from residents with wind instruments at their homes of winds up to 138 mph. He couldn’t say that the wind didn’t blow that hard, but he did note that wind instruments at the peak of a steep roof can accentuate wind speed.
“However,” DeMaurice said, “we did not have 138 mile-per-hour damage. We had 100 mile-per-hour damage.”
He noted that even though the island was in the eyewall, it was not on the most dangerous side of the storm, generally the northeast quadrant.
“We did not have a landfalling hurricane,” he said. “We had a glancing blow.”
DeMaurice said he was “sweating buckshot” until Emily’s gaping eye, headed straight for Cape Hatteras, made a turn to the north, just a few miles off the coast. If the hurricane had passed over the island and turned north up the sound, he emphasized, the devastation would have been unbelievably worse.
The devastation on the lower part of the island, he noted, was because of the duration of the storm. While Gloria in 1985 moved over Hatteras at 28 mph, Emily poked along at eight to 13 miles per hour. The persistent northwest winds drove a storm surge from the Pamlico Sound over the island up to 101/2 feet in places.
These, DeMaurice said, were the greatest water levels in living memory — more than the hurricanes of ‘33 and ‘44, and probably more than the 1899 storm. The worse since a hurricane in 1846 opened Oregon and Hatteras inlets.
The storm surge brought up to five feet of water into the homes of island residents from Avon through Buxton and on to Frisco and Hatteras villages.
There were no deaths and only one reported injury during the storm, but Emily brought devastating personal tragedy to the islanders.
County officials estimated the damage at $12.6 million, a figure which in itself is misleading. It may not seem like that much, but it’s more impressive when you consider that most of it was limited to a 17-mile stretch of the island.
Early damage estimates indicated that 683 primary homes of residents were affected by the storm. That included 168 homes destroyed, 216 uninhabitable because of major damage, and 144 uninhabitable because of minor damage. It was estimated that 25 percent of the year-round, single-family homes were destroyed or uninhabitable.
The suffering was compounded by the fact that many of the businesses in the affected area were badly damaged and closed, putting many folks out of work, at least temporarily. And the lack of affordable year-round housing was a major problem for displaced families.
In the days after the storm, Highway 12 and the side roads were lined with the remains of what had been homes, as residents laid out their devastation for all to see and for highway crews to load into trucks and cart away. The piles seemed to get higher, as the days went by, and bedding and furniture were added to ruined carpets.
Then came stoves, refrigerators, washers and dryers, televisions and then ruined clothing and toys.
Emily’s “glancing blow” seemed anything but glancing as dazed islanders began the process of cleaning up, picking up, and putting their lives back together. Help poured in from the county, from the state, from the federal government, and from private groups and individuals.
The response was impressive, and in just two weeks, Hatteras Island looked almost normal to tourists who had been allowed to return to the island. Businesses began to open, and slowly the pace of life began returning to what it was before Aug. 31.
One returning tourist, in a story in The Virginian-Pilot, called the damage “anti-climactic” after all the media coverage and said that “compared to the Florida thing (Hurricane Andrew in 1992), it’s not all that bad.”
Of course, the lower end of Hatteras Island does not have the number of people that the lower end of Florida has, and homes were not just blown apart by the wind, leaving piles of timbers for tourists to see. However, the combination of wind and surging Pamlico Sound waters inflicted emotional and financial wounds that were months and years healing.
Emily struck a crushing blow to Hatteras Island, which had been enjoying a financial recovery of sorts after several bleak years of a bad economy, devastating nor’easters, and a freak accident that took the island’s only bridge out of commission for months.
It is true that these fragile barrier islands are used to whims of the winds, and hearty, spirited islanders have weathered storms here for centuries. But few were prepared for what Emily wrought.
Nevertheless, most Hatteras islanders picked up and went on, as they did many times before, thanks to the indomitable human spirit. Either perversely or thankfully, terrific devastation brings out the best in mankind.
Islanders who themselves had suffered great losses rushed to help those who were in greater need. Neighbors to the north and south who were spared the wrath of the storm, rushed in to help. The community pulled together, and concerned people all over the state and the country sent comfort by the truckload.
Through it all, it was interesting to note that both the terrible tragedy and the terrific response brought tears to our eyes.
(Editor’s note: This article is based on an article from 1993 in The Island Breeze.)