When I worked for a newspaper on the North Carolina coast we covered lot of hurricanes, some that ever made landfall at all. We reported about the approach of major storms so people in the Onslow, Carteret and Pender county areas would be well prepared should the storm make landfall. Some of that early storm coverage turned into big beach parties for surfers before heading out to sea or somewhere up the coast a piece.
But others from 1992 to 2007 when I moved back to the Piedmont became so much more. The first big one was Bertha, in July of 1996. It was followed the same year by Fran in September — the longest night of my life then and now. There is no way to explain how a landfalling hurricane sounds at night — things falling on the roof, falling trees, snapping tree branches, shingles flying away and the train-like sound that accompanies high winds and tornadoes.
After that came Bonnie in 1998 and Dennis (a storm that thought the North Carolina coast was so nice it visited twice) in 1999. Dennis was one of those weird storms. It made a glancing hit along the coast, curved out to sea, turned around and came back in around Morehead City / Atlantic Beach. Dennis dumped a whole pile of rain on the coast during both visits. That set the stage for Hurricane Floyd about a week later. Floyd crept up the coast as a category 5 storm that forced crazed evacuations in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. It was a storm that scared the crap out of everyone in its path, which appeared to be us there at the end.
I can still remember sitting at my father-in-law’s house in Swansboro the night before Floyd was set for a North Carolina landfall. We hunkered down there because he was far from the White Oak River and lived in the safest structure of us all — a brick house. We had news to cover, after all, and his house offered haven across the bridges into Carteret County. But still we wondered if it was foolish not to evacuate. I remember talking to my boss at the time, Elliott Potter, about the need for a catastrophic hurricane plan that would involve moving our staff far inland to ride out a category 5 storm before returning to cover the outcome.
I’m sure that’s how people on the coast felt last week as Hurricane Florence, once a powerful category 4 storm, made a beeline for the North Carolina coast. I know people who evacuated last week in advance of Florence to shelters far inland, some to other states. I also know plenty of folks who stayed behind to protect their property. No one who did the latter told me later it was a good idea. Those nighttime hurricane sounds are part of the reason. The consequences can be dire. So far at least 19 deaths have been recorded during Hurricane Florence and there is still a long way to go before the state is out of this. It’s an awful storm that does call for correct use of the word “epic” to describe it.
In 1999, Hurricane Floyd actually spared the coastal region of North Carolina. At the last minute a low-pressure system gently nudged it to the east a few miles and it grazed the coastline with a glancing landfall. But Floyd left a hideous mark on Eastern North Carolina history. While the coastal region escaped incalculable damage, more inland sites were pounded by tropical rainfall in double-digit amounts just a week after two drubbings by Hurricane Dennis. Experts called what happened then something akin to the 100-year flood level as the Neuse and Cape Fear Rivers reached near-record crest stages and swamped Kinston, Rocky Mount and other small North Carolina communities. The local TV news coverage was nearly non-stop for a month. I equated it to an unbearable telethon of misery.
I wondered then if Floyd might be a glimpse of the future for North Carolina. I thought maps outlining the parameters for 50-year floods, 100-year floods or 500-year floods were very much out of date and failed to take into account the massive building boom in coastal regions, the reshaping of the area’s geography, stormwater mitigation systems and climate change. I wondered if the state might see similar flooding more often than the period between Hurricane Hazel in 1954 and Floyd in 1999.
Then in 2016, we got Hurricane Matthew, a killer storm in Haiti that led to 26 deaths in North Carolina and massive flooding in Cumberland, Harnett and Robeson counties.
And last week Hurricane Florence punished the North Carolina coast for two to three days of almost non-stop wind and rain. Weakened from a category 4 storm to a 2 and then a 1, Florence remained a stationary 250-mile force that dumped more than 30 inches of rain along the coast from the Outer Banks to Wilmington and inland to Fayetteville, Kinston, Rocky Mount and other areas near rivers prone to massive flooding. Estuaries like the White Oak River and Newport River recorded massive flooding. I have a family member who has lived in Newport all of his life (64 years) and never witnessed this kind of flooding and destruction in his home town. The historic waterfronts in Swansboro, Morehead City, Beaufort all recorded flooding and severely damaged structures.
Here are some photos my nephew Ross Gould posted on social media. He shared images shared by his friends in Carteret County. Ross’s house was flooded for the first time ever from the Newport River because of unprecedented storm surge and 30 inches of rainfall. Here are photos taken in downtown Swansboro, Beaufort and in Salter Path.
And again, multiple roadways in Eastern North Carolina are underwater and closed — including major arteries like I-95 and sections of I-40. We were driving back from a vacation trip to Maine Sunday night and began to encounter electronic signs on I-95 in Delaware warning motorists not to travel in North Carolina because of widespread flooding. Meanwhile it’s tough getting supplies to people who need them in areas that will soon be depleted of essentials, thousands are still heeding evacuation pleas from officials and power crews work to restore electric power but it some cases it might take weeks.
And with rain still falling in Central North Carolina, the flooding will only grow worse in Eastern North Carolina –not to mention problems created in the Piedmont by flash flooding.
Think about our friends in the most impacted part of North Carolina. They need all help we can muster. Contact the Red Cross online and they can offer tips on the best ways to help.
And let’s hope and pray that this doesn’t continue to happen every few years.