When the Sound and Ocean Met: Ocracoke Villagers Recall the '44 Storm

Edited excerpts of oral histories that informed Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s “Ethnohistorical Description of the Eight Villages Adjoining Cape Hatteras National Seashore,” 2005, IAI Inc. Map drawn by B. Garrity-Blake.

“Most hurricanes, you’ll get winds from the southeast, from the ocean, and it fills up the west side of Pamlico Sound, the rivers,” said Thurston Gaskill, born on Ocracoke in 1902.

“Then a sudden change as the wind goes to the northwest and pushes the water in the opposite direction,” Gaskill explained to Lawrence Earley in 1986. “If it happens on an incoming tide, you have two walls of water coming together - the incoming tide and the rush of that excessive side.”

The “bathtub effect” of storm-driven water sloshing to the west side of Pamlico Sound and then surging to the east helps explains why the village of Ocracoke experienced a seven-foot storm surge during Hurricane Dorian on September 6, 2019. Except the flooding from Dorian occurred near low tide.

“Unprecedented,” said residents, devastated by the rising waters that flooded homes, businesses, and vehicles. Some older villagers compared Dorian to the ‘44 storm.

According to a storm journal found written on the wall of an abandoned house - reprinted in the 1973 Ocracoke High School yearbook - the 1944 hurricane hit on September 14, bringing 100 knot winds and 14 foot tides. The island was “completely under water.” The account described a house with three feet of tide inside, its windows and doors blown out. Boats were tossed ashore and countless animals were drowned.

“Far worst storm to ever strike Island,” the journal stated. “No lives lost.”

The day before the ‘44 storm, according to the account, “14 fishboats came into lake for shelter.”

Ocracoke native Nathanial Jackson, now deceased, said that fishermen received storm warnings from “hurricane planes” that dropped canisters into the water that contained a message.

“I pulled along to it, hooked it and pulled it up. Had a cork stopper in the end. Had a note in it. ‘Hurricane, Latitude and Longitude…seek harbor at once.’”

Ellen Cloud, whose father ran the mailboat Aleta between Ocracoke and Atlantic, said that she could hear a storm approaching.

“The ocean makes a completely different sound when a storm is coming.  It crackles and talks to you.”

Before the ‘44 storm hit, Navy personnel stationed on the island warned villagers to prepare. Folks living in especially low-lying areas took refuge at the lighthouse or Coast Guard station. Islanders secured their boats, and put household belongings and valuables on tables or upstairs.

“My furniture’s been up and down more than Humpty Dumpty,” Elizabeth Howard told Amy Glass in 1988. She recalled getting 12 inches of water in her house during the ‘44 storm.

Many prepared for the hurricane by removing plugs or boards in the floor of their homes to keep houses from floating off the foundation like a boat.

“Most everybody had what they called a scuttle on the floor,” recalled Henry Ballance in a 1988 oral history recording. “Let the water come in. Hold it on the blocks. One board that they would take up.”

As children, Ellen Cloud and her brother Murray Fulcher were more thrilled than terrified during storms.

“We would slide down the banister into the water and have the best time,” said Cloud. She recalled that her mother would grab a mop and keep the water stirred up in the living room so that the mud would flow out with the falling tide.

“In the ’44 hurricane the sound and ocean met, I think, on this corner!” said Elizabeth Howard. She experienced rushing waters so fierce that it tore the straps off her white sandals.

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