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Hurricane Florence 2018: Why Did It Cause So Much Damage And Why Was It So Strong?

Few can argue that Hurricane Florence 2018 was a much different storm than anyone living in Eastern NC has ever experienced. But why was this tropical system so strong and why did she cause so much damage as only a Category 1 (CAT 1) storm compared to other storms that routinely hit Eastern NC during hurricane season?

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Before we get in to the answers to these two questions, let’s take a look at some historical information about this storm.

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  • Hurricane Florence made landfall at Wrightsville Beach, NC at 7:15 am on September 14, 2018.
  • The system came within 47 miles of Atlantic Beach NC in Carteret County NC as a Category 1 storm with sustained winds of 94 mph before turning due west towards Wrightsville Beach (landfall was 90 mph winds).
  • As this system approached Carteret County NC and stalled briefly before turning west, her maximum forward speed was only between 5-6 mph.
  • Hurricane force winds lashed Carteret County, Onslow County, and New Hanover County for over 16 hours.
  • This slow moving storm dumped nearly 27 inches of rain on coastal communities from Morehead City, Jacksonville, Topsail Island, Wilmington, Carolina Beach, and Wrightsville Beach NC.
  • Inland communities from New Bern to Kinston along the Neuse River and Cape Fear River saw historic flooding during the storm and days after the storm as these rivers crested and flooded many communities with as much as 12 feet of standing water.
  • All coastal roads going inland from Wilmington to Morehead City, including Interstate 40, were flooded and unable to be traveled.
  • All of Eastern NC and Coastal SC were under mandatory evacuation orders.
  • As of September 27th, 2018, there are 48 deaths associated with this tropical system. This is more deaths that Hurricane Hugo, Fran, and Bertha.
  • Homes in Eastern NC were without electricity for as long as one week despite there being a mobilization of over 2,000 power line workers dispatched to the area from Indiana, Michigan, Florida, and Western NC.
  • All computer models forecasted the exact path of this storm as far out as 6 days.
  • 28 confirmed tornadoes.

why was this hurricane so strong?

The Path Of This Storm, Along With It’s Forward Speed Accounts For The Unprecedented Damage And Flooding

But first, let’s talk about some technical aspects of tropical systems:

Local Meterology

The left side of all tropical storms and hurricanes are largely considered the less severe side as far as winds are concerned. The dreaded right upper quadrant of these storms are where the brute force winds and storm surge occurs.

In the Atlantic Basin, 99.5% of all tropical systems that enter this area in their travels from Africa do so by coming in from the Leeward Islands, through the Caribbean Islands, and then curve North along the East Coast either going out to sea or scraping the Eastern Seaboard from Florida to Cape Hatteras. This is not to say that some storms do not make landfall in South Carolina and North Carolina. Surely, hurricanes Hugo, Fran, and Bertha will be remembered by many reading this article.

But historically, the one’s that do affect Eastern NC and mostly Coastal SC, their path puts the left side of the storm over land.

Hurricane Hugo hit SC as a legitimate Cat 3 storm placing the right upper quadrant over Charleston SC, and hurricanes Fran and Bertha hit Wilmington NC / Wrightsville Beach as Cat 1 storms that placed the right upper quadrant over much of Eastern NC.

Aside from Hugo, which is still the Atlantic Basin’s largest major hurricane (Cat 3 or greater), both Fran and Bertha were comparable storms to Florence causing only half the deaths. As I write this article, the final number on cost of Florence is nowhere near complete. But what we do know now is that Hurricane Florence has caused more deaths than Hugo, Fran, and Bertha.

But why?

In looking at the Saffir-Simpson scale which assigns a hurricane her category, a Cat 1 storm is from 74 mph winds to 95 mph winds, a Cat 2 storm is from 96 mph winds to 110 mph, and a Cat 3 storm is from 111 mph winds to 129 mph.

Now officially, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) has Florence as a Category 1 storm with winds of 94 mph when it approached Carteret County, NC (90 mph when it hit Wrightsville Beach / Wilmington) and came within 47 miles (the eye) of the coastline. But this means that the IMMEDIATE right upper quadrant containing the strongest winds were only 10-15 miles from Atlantic Beach, Pine Knoll Shores, and Emerald Isle.

Given this, and that there is ZERO difference in a Cat 1 with 94 mph winds and a Cat 2 with 96 mph winds, all of Eastern NC from Cape Lookout to Wilmington experienced high Cat 1 to Low Cat 2 winds with Cat 3 wind gusts.

Complicating things further is the fact that this storm literally meandered from Morehead City to Wrightsville Beach over 8 hrs and unleashed right quadrant hurricane force winds over a large swath of land. Also, given it’s slow forward movement, most coastal communities experienced 2 high tides with hurricane force winds.

Lastly, this historic hurricane carried a LOT of water with her and moved a lot of water. What will be remembered about Hurricane Florence is not her wind, but the extreme damage caused by falling trees and water damage from both a prolonged rain event and historic flooding along the immediate coast and well inland.

Here is some data to help solidify just how damaging and strong Florence was even though officially she was a low category storm. I will update the damage cost of Florence 2018 when it is released.

Hurricane Fran: Damage: $5 billion in damage, 27 lives lost.
Hurricane Bertha: Damage: $335 million in damage, 12 lives lost.
Hurricane Hugo: Damage: $9.47 billion in damage, 27 lives lost.

Hurricane Florence: 48 lives lost.

Using the comment section below, tell us about your experience during this storm.

Fallen power line and transformer during the hurricane

power lines all over the road 2018

Michael Sharp

Native of Carteret County NC, Father to Makayla and Savannah. You can add me on Facebook. Interest include web development, encryption, and other technologies.

One thought on “Hurricane Florence 2018: Why Did It Cause So Much Damage And Why Was It So Strong?

  • November 24, 2018 at 1:14 am

    Truly a historical hurricane to say the least and just goes to show you that you can never just rely on the category strength of these storms. Florence easily did Category 2 and 3 damage because of her slow speed which has she just blown and and left the area quickly it would not have been as bad. But because of her slow meandering drift over Carteret County it really put a prolonged stress on roofs and trees which in the long run did all the damage.

    We definitely learned a lot about how strong low category storms can be with this one.



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