WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Hurricane Florence was one of the most historic hurricanes to ever hit southeastern North Carolina. Though Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale, it produced catastrophic freshwater and river flooding. It also spawned many small tornado touchdowns more than 48 hours after making landfall.
This was due, in part, to the storm’s large size and extremely slow movement after the storm made landfall on Wrightsville Beach.
Some of the largest rainfall totals were measured in Elizabethtown, where nearly 3 feet of rain fell, Hampstead and areas south of Wilmington measured over 29 and 30 inches, respectively. Overall, most locations in southeastern North Carolina saw between 15-20 inches of rain.
The resulting volume of water that flowed into area streams, creeks, and rivers caused record crests for the Lumber River in Fair Bluff, the Black River, and the northeast Cape Fear River
As bad as the storm was, it could have been much worse.
First, remember that four days before landfall Florence was a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 140 mph. Wind shear and dry air penetrating Florence’s center caused the storm to lose intensity.
Additionally, if Florence had maintained its strength, like Hurricane Michael did in Florida a few weeks later, catastrophic wind damage and massive storm surge would have resulted in additional destruction.
This was the case in 1954 when Category 4 Hurricane Hazel made landfall along the North Carolina/South Carolina border. This pushed an 18-foot storm surge on to the beaches of Brunswick County, wiping out nearly all structures along the coastline. Winds were in the 125-140 mph range with Hazel, compared to the general 70-90 mph range with Florence.
Following Hazel, the Raleigh Weather Bureau declared, “All traces of civilization on the immediate waterfront from the state line to Cape Fear are practically annihilated.”
Ultimately, Florence’s large size and slow movement sealed southeast North Carolina’s fate in terms of catastrophic freshwater and river flooding. While the storm’s impacts continue to be felt one year after landfall, we are thankful technology has improved to better track hurricanes and alert those in its path.