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Hurricanes in North Carolina

Hurricanes or tropical cyclones are violent storms with strong rotating winds that form over warm ocean waters near the equator. A typical hurricane can span up to 300 miles, with wind speeds ranging from 74 to over 155 miles per hour (mph). Other terms that describe severe storms from tropical or subtropical waters are typhoons and cyclones.

Hurricanes are considered some of the deadliest storms on earth. When they approach land, they come with heavy winds, storm surges, and severe flooding capable of devastating both coastal and nearby inland areas. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), hurricanes caused a total of $1.1 trillion in economic losses and 6,697 deaths in the United States between 1980 and 2021, making it the most destructive natural disaster in the country within the period. Although a hurricane’s category and the likelihood of damage are determined based on how high its wind speed is, the majority of hurricane damage is linked to flooding.

Hurricane Science

Hurricanes form as a result of the interplay of weather systems over warm oceans. The process requires the existence of certain conditions or ingredients, which includes:

  • A tropical wave: This is a moving low-pressure area that enhances the formation of thunderstorms over tropical waters.

  • Warm ocean water: Hurricanes draw energy from the moist warmth of ocean water. For one to form, the water needs to be at least 79 degrees Fahrenheit to a depth of 50 meters.

  • Thunderstorm activity: Thunderstorms convert heat from ocean water to the energy that fuels hurricanes.

  • Low wind shear: Wind shear refers to the change in the speed and direction of the wind with height. A hurricane is unlikely to form when the wind shear is high at the upper level of the atmosphere.

  • Coriolis force: This is the movement of wind in response to earth’s rotation. This phenomenon is at the maximum close to the equator.

How Hurricanes Form

The formation of a hurricane begins when warm water vapors rising through a low-pressure zone over the ocean cool off, forming cumulonimbus or thunderstorm clouds. This results in the heating of surrounding air which begins to rise into the clouds, creating a moving air column. The moving air column encounters more clouds and forms a cluster of thunderstorm clouds known as a tropical disturbance.

As the process continues, more air rises into the clouds, water in the clouds condenses, and thunderstorms grow into a single giant storm. The air pressure at the center of the storm decreases, and surrounding winds begin to swirl counterclockwise if in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise if in the Southern Hemisphere. This manner of wind rotation is caused by the Coriolis effect, which refers to the curvature of winds as the earth rotates.

When the wind speed reaches between 25 and 38 mph, the weather system is considered a tropical depression. If the storm intensifies, reaching wind speeds between 24 and 39 mph, it is considered a tropical storm and gets a name. Names are given to tropical storms based on a strict procedure and a list of names provided by the World Meteorological Organization. If the tropical storm grows even larger and winds rotate faster than 74 mph, it officially becomes a hurricane. A hurricane begins to dissipate when it moves over cooler water or land, as there will not be enough moist warmth to fuel it. However, they often move far inland, causing heavy rainfall and wind damage before dying out completely.

What Hurricanes Look Like

Hurricanes have a similar structure which typically consists of the eye, eyewall, and rainbands. The eye is the center of the hurricane, which is usually calm and clear. It usually spans between 20 to 40 miles across with light winds not exceeding 15 mph in speed.

Some people experiencing the clear weather of the eye may assume that the hurricane has passed. However, it is only half done, the strong winds and heavy rain return shortly from the opposite direction.

Meanwhile, the eyewall is the fiercest part of the storm. It is a wall of thunderstorms surrounding the eye that produces the strongest winds and heavy rain. Rainbands are dense bands of clouds and thunderstorms extending several miles from the eyewall. They are spiral in shape and can cause heavy rainfall, winds, and tornadoes.

Size and Intensity of Hurricanes

Hurricanes vary in size and intensity. A typical hurricane, cyclone, or typhoon can extend about 300 miles wide. But the intensity of hurricanes is usually not a function of their size. Notably, the 1992 Hurricane Andrew, which is the second most devastating hurricane to hit the United States, was a relatively small hurricane, with a diameter of just 50 miles.

The 1979 Typhoon Tip, the largest storm on record, measured 675 miles across, while the 2008 Storm Marco, the smallest, had a radius of only 11.5 miles. The intensity of a hurricane is instead measured as its category or rating, which depends on its maximum sustained wind speed.

Categories of Hurricanes

Meteorologists use the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale to assign ratings to hurricanes. The scale measures the intensity of a hurricane using values from 1 to 5. The higher the category, the greater the hurricane's potential for property damage.

  • Category 1 hurricanes have a maximum sustained speed between 74 and 95 mph and are likely to cause minimal damage.

  • Category 2 wind speed ranges from 96 to 110 mph and can cause moderate damage.

  • Categories 3 to 5 are considered major hurricanes. With wind speeds between 111 and 130, Category 3s can cause extensive damage.

  • Extreme damage can result from Category 4 as they have wind speeds ranging from 131 to 155 mph.

  • Category 5s are the most powerful and destructive. They have wind speeds that exceed 155 mph and are capable of causing catastrophic damage.

Category Maximum wind speed (mph) Damage at landfall
1 74-95 Minimal
2 96-110 Moderate
3 111-130 Extensive
4 131-155 Extreme
5 Over 155 Catastrophic

A hurricane can impact areas miles away from its center. Hurricane-force of a relatively small storm can extend as far as 25 miles while that of a large hurricane can be more than 150 miles. But note that most property damage that occurs during hurricanes result from floods caused by the storm. Large, slow-moving hurricanes often cause severe floods. Furthermore, hurricanes can cause coastal and river flooding without even making landfall.

The most devastating hurricane ever recorded in the United States was the 2005 Hurricane Katrina which made landfall as a Category 3 and resulted in 1,833 fatalities and approximately $108 billion in damage. The most devastating recorded in North Carolina in recent times is the 2018 Hurricane Florence which caused 42 deaths and $16.7 billion worth of damage in the state.

Affected Areas and Seasonality

Although not all hurricanes end up approaching land, when they do, coastal areas bordered by warm oceans are at significant risk of their impacts. Hurricanes can hit places in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, Bermuda, eastern Canada, and the eastern coast of the United States.

The hurricane season typically runs from June to November, with August to October being the period they are more likely to hit North Carolina. In contrast, typhoons are more likely to form between April and December, affecting Vietnam, Japan, and the east coast of China, among other areas along the Northwest Pacific. Cyclones generally occur between November and April, affecting coastal areas from Australia to Mozambique. Hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones, sometimes occur outside their usual season.

Hurricane Disaster Impacts

According to the National Weather Service, hurricanes and tropical storms directly caused 12 deaths and economic damage of $8.599.54 billion in the United States in 2021, with North Carolina being one of the most hit areas. The following weather conditions contribute to the destructive powers of hurricanes:

  • High Winds: With a speed exceeding 74 mph, hurricane winds are strong enough to uproot trees, destroy crops, and damage buildings and vehicles. Likewise, hurricane winds can lift objects and debris, making them flying missiles capable of causing severe injuries to persons and damage to structures and vehicles during the storm.

  • Storm Surge: The high winds and low air pressure of an approaching hurricane can suddenly cause the sea level to rise as high as 20 feet or more. Storm surges only last a few hours but can result in devastating floods in coastal areas.

  • Flooding: In addition to storm surges, severe floods can result from torrential rain brought by a hurricane. Excess water overwhelming water channels may also result in flash floods which are characterized by rapidly rising and swift-moving water. Floods can submerge low-lying areas, destroy buildings and essential infrastructures, devastate farmlands, and cause fatalities. Flooding remains the leading cause of damage from hurricanes. The 1999 Hurricane Floyd caused one of the worst floods in North Carolina’s history, which resulted in 35 deaths and the destruction of over 7,000 homes. On average, the country experiences about 140 deaths and $6 billion in property damage yearly due to floods.

  • Tornadoes: Tornadoes are violently rotating columns of air that extend from a thunderstorm to the ground. Thunderstorms in a hurricane’s rain bands can spawn tornadoes. Though tornadoes caused by hurricanes are usually relatively weak, their winds can still cause considerable damage to structures and vehicles.

  • Rip Currents: Hurricane winds can cause coastal waves to break, resulting in channeled wanner current flowing away from the shore and pulling swimmers along with it. According to the National Ocean Service, rip currents are estimated to cause an average of 100 deaths in the United States yearly. North Carolina recorded 4 rip current fatalities in 2020.

North Carolina Hurricane Threat Profile

North Carolina is a state in the Southeastern region of the United States with a land area of 48,623.02 square miles and a population of 10,439,388 people as of 2020. The State is one of the places most susceptible to hurricane damage in the United States because of the extension of its coastline into the Atlantic Ocean.

The state’s low and flat coastline generally makes it vulnerable to floods when a hurricane approaches. One of the most devastating hurricanes ever recorded in North Carolina was the 1999 Hurricane Floyd, a Category 2 which caused severe flooding in nearly half of the state, including 52 deaths and $5.5 billion in damage.

Counties Prone to Hurricanes in North Carolina

On average, North Carolina experiences more than one hurricane every three years, and the majority of its land area has been affected by hurricanes in the past 20 years.

Areas with the most significant risk of hurricane impacts in North Carolina are the coastal counties, which include Beaufort, Bertie, Brunswick, Camden, Carteret, Chowan, Craven, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hertford, Hyde, New Hanover, Onslow, Pamlico, Pasquotank, Pender, Perquimans, Tyrrell, and Washington. Nearby inland areas are also at risk of heavy rainfall and inland flooding, depending on how far a hurricane travels inland.

Notable Hurricanes in North Carolina

The following are hurricanes that have been recorded in North Carolina, including the affected areas and estimated damage:

Name Year Category Affected Areas Deaths Economic loss ($)
Hazel 1954 4 New Hanover, Brunswick, Southport, Wrightsville Beach 19 136 million
Hugo 1989 4 29 Counties (Charlotte especially hit) 7 1 billion
Fran 1996 3 Raleigh 37 5 billion
Bertha 1996 2 North Topsail Beach, Pender, and Onslow 8 270 million
Bonnie 1998 3 Wilmington area 1 480 million
Charley 2004 4 Seven Counties, including Brunswick County. - 25 million
Ophelia 2004 1 Pamlico Sound, Salter Path, and places along the Outer Banks 1 70 million
Matthew 2016 1 50 Counties (Robeson, Edgecombe, Cumberland, and Wayne, especially) 31 4.8 billion
Florence 2018 1 Areas along Cape Fear, Northeast Cape Fear, Lumberton, and Waccamaw Rivers 42 16.7 billion

Hurricanes are likely to impact North Carolina between May and November with the most active months being August, September, and October. The state is significantly at risk during its peak hurricane season which lasts from mid-August to late September.

Getting Ready for Hurricane In North Carolina

Keeping safe during a Hurricane requires adequate preparation, including learning about your area’s hurricane risks, alert systems, and evacuation plans. The following information provides guidance on how to prepare yourself, your family, your properties, and your finances for hurricane impacts in North Carolina.

Hurricane Warnings and Alerts

Hurricane alerts keep residents informed of approaching storms and hurricanes, including some location-specific safety tips. It is important to know the difference between the two types of hurricane alerts to properly understand your hurricane impact risk.

An alert can either be a watch or a warning. A hurricane watch is issued when it is possible that a hurricane can impact an area. The National Hurricane Center usually issues watches 48 hours before the storm winds are expected. Meanwhile, a hurricane warning is issued 36 hours before the predicted storm winds to notify residents of a particular area that a hurricane is expected to impact their vicinity.

How to Find Hurricane Watches and Alerts in North Carolina

North Carolina residents can assess hurricane alerts through several media. Radio and Television stations broadcast emergency messages from the State's Emergency Alert System (EAS).

Similarly, residents can receive location-specific Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) directly on their cell phones. You do not need to sign-up or subscribe to WEA. All you have to do is turn on your emergency alerts in your phone’s notifications setting. You can also get real time weather reports for your area through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio. NOAA radios are usually available in local electronic stores.

Finally, local authorities also provide residents with timely information about approaching disasters and safety directions to avoid fatalities. Contact your local emergency office to sign up for their emergency notification service.

Note that when preparing for a hurricane, it is also crucial to be attentive to alerts relating to other hurricane-linked occurrences, such as extreme winds, storm surges, flooding, and tornadoes. These weather incidents accompany hurricanes and cause considerable losses. The same rule applies to them, watches are for possible events, while warnings are for approaching disasters.

Preparing for Hurricane in North Carolina

North Carolina residents should consider the following tips when developing their preparedness for hurricane conditions and impacts.

  • Create an emergency plan: Having a plan makes your emergency response more efficient and precise. Your emergency plan should have several possible circumstances that may play out during a hurricane emergency. It should also include a communication and evacuation plan. Discuss and practice your emergency plan with your family often, including essential skills such as using a fire extinguisher and administering first aid. Your pets should also be considered when drawing up a plan. Additionally, learn about the emergency plan at your workplace or school and your children’s school or daycare.

  • Prepare emergency kits: Put together essential supplies required for three to seven days. Consider the needs of each family member when assembling emergency kits and ensure that the kits are placed in easily accessible places. Items that should be in your emergency kit include non-perishable food, water, first-aid items, sanitary materials, a flashlight, NOAA Radio, and important documents such as passports and personal identification. Also, couple a kit for your pets, including their medicine, food, toys, and collar tags containing your contact information.

  • Review your insurance: Ensure that your building’s insurance covers damage from natural disasters. Note that homeowners and renters insurance does not typically cover high winds and floods. Hence, you need separate coverage for that. You can get home insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program. Also, ensure that your vehicle insurance is comprehensive to cover damage from flood and wind. Make sure your boat’s insurance is also up to date.

  • Protect your home and belongings: Contact local authorities to learn about your area’s hurricane risk and how to protect your home and belongings. If your home is in a coastal area, you may need to install storm shutters or board up your windows with plywood. Also, learn how to turn off utilities in case you need to do so when a storm approaches. Additionally, make a list of your properties and belongings for insurance purposes and keep it in a safe-deposit box or somewhere away from your home.

  • Protecting your automobiles: Always park your vehicle in a garage or near your home. Avoid parking under trees and power lines and always have an emergency kit in your vehicle. Boats should be moved out of the water and fastened in storage spots. If non-trailable, secure it in the marina berth, double all lines, install fenders, and ensure that batteries are fully charged to operate automatic bilge pumps throughout the storm.

  • Protect essential documents: Besides documents that would go into your emergency kits, secure other essential documents, such as those relating to title and insurance, in a waterproof container. If possible, consider keeping copies with trusted family and friends that reside in areas that are not disaster-prone. Also, keep proper records of your automobile documents, including licenses and insurance. You may also take pictures of these documents and back them up to cloud storage.

  • Have a savings plan for emergencies: Create a saving plan to cover your emergency response. Also, ensure that you always have some cash at hand, as ATMs and credit cards may not function during hurricane emergencies. Keeping cash in easily accessible locations can be helpful.

  • Be attentive and stay alert: Take note of hurricane alerts and warnings and emergency safety information provided by local authorities. Also, always ensure that your vehicle is in good condition and well-fuelled in case an evacuation is necessary. You can also contact local authorities to learn beforehand about your community’s evacuation routes and hurricane shelters.

Hurricane Evacuation in North Carolina

When a hurricane is approaching, local authorities decide on whether to inform residents to leave the vicinity or not, depending on the area's vulnerability to hurricane impact. North Carolina communities have a zoning system to determine areas that should prioritize evacuation when storms are approaching.

For example, areas with the most significant risk in Zone A will typically be evacuated first, while Zone B areas would be evacuated next. You can check your vicinity’s zone by visiting the State’s Know your zone website. Note that not all areas may require evacuation during a hurricane emergency. Also, local authorities can inform you to evacuate even if your area is not zoned. Local authorities disseminate evacuation information through local alert systems. Residents can also find active evacuation orders online on the State’s emergency website.

The following are helpful tips you should consider when advised to evacuate due to imminent hurricane impacts:

  • Evacuate early before severe weather conditions hit.

  • Take your emergency kits with you.

  • Take directions from local emergency officers and follow the routes they recommend.

  • Do not drive in flooded areas, as just six inches of water may disrupt your vehicle.

  • Determine where to wait out the emergency with your family. Public shelters should only be the last option.

  • Take extra cash and essential documents.

  • Secure your home before leaving. Lock doors and windows and turn off appliances and utilities.

Staying Safe During a Hurricane in North Carolina

Your local news station will provide safety tips to keep you safe and what your next course of action should be. Still, here are helpful tips on how to stay safe during a hurricane in North Carolina:

  • Secure your home and belongings: Cover your windows and bring outdoor items like lawn furniture, grills, and tools indoors. You can tie down objects you are unable to move to prevent winds or floods from carrying them. Also, move valuable objects to higher levels in your building to protect them from flood water. Furthermore, turn off all utilities. Be cautious when doing so, and only touch electric equipment in a dry area while wearing protective boots and gloves.

  • Monitor pets: Keep an eye on your pets and ensure they do not stray away from your direction.

  • Save clean water: Your water supply may get contaminated due to the storm, so fill clean containers and jugs with clean water. You can also fill your bathtubs and sinks with water for washing. Disinfect your containers by rinsing them with bleach before filling them.

Hurricane Shelters in North Carolina

One of the most important aspects to consider when trying to stay safe during a hurricane is where you would wait out the storm. Based on your area's risk, local authorities would have communicated how safe it is to stay at home and whether you should immediately proceed to a shelter or some other safe place. If you decide to stay at home during a storm, take note of the following tips.

  • Stay indoors. Do not stay in mobile homes as they can be easily destroyed by winds or carried by flood water.

  • If possible, stay in a windowless room or in a closet. If not, stay away from windows to avoid injuries from broken glass.

  • Move to the highest level of your home and call 9-1-1 when trapped by rapidly-rising flood water.

Tips for Selecting a Hurricane Shelter in North Carolina

If you intend to evacuate ahead of a storm, you should have decided whether to stay in an open shelter or some other safe place and communicate your plan to your family. When making a choice, take note of the following information.

  • Ensure that your evacuation plan does not ignore COVID-19 risks. It is advisable to stay with family or friends in a house or hotel far away from projected storm impacts. Open shelters are not attractive options during disease outbreaks, so only make them your last resort.

  • Not all motels and shelters can accommodate pets. So if you have pets, mark out safe places that accommodate pets beforehand and develop an evacuation plan for your pet.

  • The North Carolina government provides information about open shelters on its emergency website. You can also contact local authorities to learn about nearby shelters.

What to Do After a Hurricane in North Carolina

What you do after the storm is just as important as what you do during and before it. The aftermath of a hurricane comes with several challenges and secondary hazards which should be addressed properly to avoid further damage or casualties. Here are important things to note:

General Safety Precautions

  • Do not walk or drive in flooded areas. Also, do not drive around barricades. They are often used by local emergency authorities to direct traffic.

  • Steer clear from bridges and downed power lines.

  • If you evacuated before the storm, only return to your vicinity when local officials declare it safe. Also, wait till your building is confirmed safe to enter before you do so.

  • If you suspect a gas leak, leave your home and call 9-1-1 immediately.

  • Avoid using candles. Use flashlights instead.

Finding Clean Water and Food

  • Avoid contact with stormwater as it is usually contaminated with hazardous substances. Furthermore, do not use tap water until it is declared safe by local authorities. Only use bottled water until then.

  • Only take fresh food that has not been contaminated during the storm. Throw away food items that have come in contact with flood water.

  • Check yourself and your family for injuries and seek medical assistance after applying first aid treatment.

  • Clean and sanitize objects that have come in contact with flood water before using them. Objects that are soaked and cannot be cleaned should be discarded.

Handling Insurance After Hurricane

  • Contact your insurance agent as soon as you can to schedule an inspection.

  • Consult with your insurance agent before renting a temporary shelter to determine whether the expenses are covered by your policy.

  • To aid in the filing of insurance claims, take pictures of your building and properties before making any repairs. Also, prepare an inventory of damaged and destroyed properties.

Repairing Damage to Your Property

  • Hire licensed building contractors to assess the damage done to your home structure and utilities. Do not turn your utilities by yourself.

  • Avoid making permanent repairs without consulting your insurance agent. Only make initial repairs to prevent further damage and document costs and proof of payment.

  • Wear protective clothing, including long clothes, gloves, and sturdy boots, when cleaning up your building.

  • Hurricanes often cause power outages. When this happens, open your refrigerators and freezers only when necessary to allow your food to stay preserved as long as possible. Also, do not run your generator indoors or in your garage to avoid carbon monoxide fumes from building up and causing casualties.

Getting Financial Aid After Hurricane in North Carolina

  • Look out for disaster aid following a Presidential Disaster Declaration for your area. Assistance provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in collaboration with state and local governments includes rental and sheltering assistance, home repairs and debris clean up, and nutritional assistance.

  • Take advantage of tax relief for people affected by hurricane impacts to help your finances after a disaster.

  • Beware of contractor scams. After major disasters, fraudulent contractors try to take advantage of affected areas and scam unsuspecting residents. Ensure that you hire only licensed contractors and avoid dealing with professionals that offer their services door-to-door. You can report fraudulent contractors by filing a complaint with the Office of the Attorney General of North Carolina either online or by calling 1-877-5-NO-SCAM.

  • Also, note that it is illegal for suppliers of materials and contractors to charge people in disaster-hit areas excessively. To report price gouging incidents, file a complaint with the Attorney General.