Recent history reminds us that even ‘low’ category storms can have big impact

Recent history reminds us that even ‘low’ category storms can have big impact

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - When you typically think about how dangerous a hurricane is, the first thing most people point to is the storm’s category -- or the Saffir-Simpson scale.

But the scale simply measures the wind intensity of a hurricane -- while leaving out the storm's size, speed and wind-field. It also doesn't account for other impacts like storm surge, tornadoes and most importantly -- flooding.

All of these factors play a role in how devastating the impact will be.

Hurricane categories
Hurricane categories (Source: WECT)

While a Category 5 storm is very dangerous -- it's important to remember southeast North Carolina has seen serious impacts from storms on the lower-end of the scale.

Hurricane Matthew taught us this lesson in October 2016. The storm was only listed as a Category 1 and never made landfall here. However its intense rainfall ended up killing 28 people, brought record or near record flooding to many of our rivers and caused one-point-five billion dollars in damage.

Of course, Hurricane Florence is a case study on how a category doesn’t define impact.

The Category 1 storm made landfall near Wrightsville Beach -- but because of it's sheer size and extremely slow movement -- it stalled for three days over the Cape Fear region.

Starting on September 14, 2018 -- Florence unloaded nearly three feet of rain in some places -- washing out most highways throughout the area --and effectively cutting Wilmington off from the mainland for days. Then the torrential downpours were followed by an outbreak of devastating tornadoes. When it was all said and done -- 54 people died and 24 billion dollars in damage came from another Category 1 Hurricane.

Even last year, Hurricane Dorian produced 14 tornadoes in southeast North Carolina. Portions of Brunswick and New Hanover counties saw a foot of rain, but thankfully the flooding issues were not quite as bad this time around.

High categories on the Saffir-Simpson scale always get our attention. However recent damage from “low” category storms reminds us it is not about the category but the impact a storm is capable of. That is what we focus on in the WECT First Alert Weather Center.

Copyright 2020 WECT. All rights reserved.