North Carolina’s Hurricane History (fourth edition)

By Jay Barnes

UNC Press; July 2019

We’re now over a month into what the Climate Prediction Center expects will be a near-normal hurricane season, one that produces two to four major hurricanes and nine to fifteen total named storms. But almost fifteen years after Katrina, and on the heels of $50 billion worth of damage nationwide from a rough 2018 hurricane season, it feels like we’re living in a new normal. Add to this the fact that North Carolina ranks third nationally in hurricane landfalls, and it’s natural to have a few questions. Will the Outer Banks have a new inlet by December? Will climate change bring a Sandy-like superstorm to wreak havoc? Should I book that beachfront Airbnb for mid-September?

If there’s one North Carolina voice to trust with these questions, it’s Jay Barnes. Our state’s hurricane guru has just published a new edition of his definitive North Carolina’s Hurricane History. Studded with hard-to-find photographs of hurricanes and their aftermath, it features much more than storm lore. Bookended by a hurricane primer (perfect for N.C. transplants) and a new chapter called “The Next Great Storm,” North Carolina’s Hurricane History looks at the meteorological, geographical, environmental, and cultural backdrop of our perennial coastal and inland companion. Recently, the INDY spoke with Barnes about the impacts of recent storms, climate change, and what we need to do before the next big one hits.

INDY: What’s unique about twenty-first-century hurricanes?

JAY BARNES: Hurricanes striking N.C. in recent years include Irene, Matthew, and Florence (among others). There are several things about this group that are worth noting in historical context. First, as bad as they were, none made landfall with great intensity as traditionally measured with the Saffir-Simpson scale [the index that categorizes hurricanes on a 1-5 scale]. None were ‘major’ hurricanes at landfall (Category 3 or greater) but yet some still rank among the state’s most destructive and most costly hurricanes in history. Each was an ominous, powerful storm at sea that weakened considerably before sweeping ashore. It illustrates how forecasters’ intensity measurements can mislead, creating scenarios where “modest” Category 1 storms can cause epic flooding and cost dozens of lives and billions in damages.

What’s unique about North Carolina in terms of hurricane history?

N.C. ranks third in the U.S. in hurricane landfalls, following Florida and Texas. Though we often focus on landfalls on our coast, it’s important to note that all one hundred counties of our state are vulnerable, as many storms have impacted our western counties, including the mountains. Landfalls elsewhere often spin dissipating tropical systems our way, with lots of historical examples of destruction and fatalities.

What are some of the major storms to hit the Triangle that younger readers might not remember?

The two epic events in the Triangle worth noting are Fran in 1996 and Hazel in 1954—both were powerful storms that made landfall below Wilmington and tracked deep inland. Fran was a Category 3 and Hazel a Category 4. These are reminders that you don’t need to live at the coast to get slammed by a hurricane disaster.

Why does the hurricane threat to the central and western parts of the state get overlooked?

We do tend to think of the threat as being from the Atlantic and along the coast. Inland areas have suffered greatly, however, and it mostly comes down to extended rainfall and the flooding it can produce. North Carolina is a land sliced and diced by river systems. Rainfall doesn’t tend to be as sensational while it’s occurring. Rain is more insidious, sometimes taking hours or days to produce the raging rivers that flood homes and businesses.

In terms of the anticipation and attention it garners, hurricane season can feel a bit like March Madness. Are North Carolinians marked by hurricanes even when they aren’t bearing down on us?

The frequency of storm events plays into this. I remember a time when hurricanes seemed rare in N.C.—no significant hurricane events occurred here from 1960 through the early 1980s—a remarkable period of quiet that caused a generation to almost forget about them. But yes, especially along the coast, residents watch carefully and know the routine because they know that any year could be “the” year.

Do you predict that climate change will play a prominent role in how we think about hurricanes in the years to come?

The scientific community continues to make strides in better understanding the impact of warming oceans and the atmosphere on hurricanes. The newest evidence, some released within the past year, is compelling, and does confirm many earlier assumptions about increased storm frequency and enhanced intensities. As the evidence builds, there’s ever more reason to understand that our future with hurricanes is likely to be filled with more frequent and deadly storm events.

On the other hand, too often we’ve seen pundits and climate-change advocates try to directly correlate a specific hurricane event with climate change. In my opinion, that’s not exactly honest. For example, if a powerful storm strikes Florida, like Michael in 2018, should we look to a warming climate to explain its fury? Well, perhaps a warmer-than-normal Gulf of Mexico played some role, but other storms of similar intensity are known to have struck the region for centuries. Our changing climate has and will express some dramatic impacts, with shifting weather patterns, gradually rising seas, and consistently warmer oceans. But the atmosphere is complex.

Do you have your own hurricane survival story?

Probably my favorite memories come from my days as director of the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores when, during Fran and others, I didn’t evacuate, but needed to stay in the Aquarium to make sure generators ran smoothly. My daughters still have fond memories of those lock-ins.

What’s the most important behavior North Carolinians need to adopt before the next storm?

Knowledge. Patience. A willingness to help our neighbors. And decision-making that incorporates resilience. Resilience in our communities and for our families. Being resilient means being knowledgeable, prepared, and having taken early measures to minimize impact.