NC Hurricane History: A Historically Slow Start and Strong
Understanding the history of hurricanes is
complicated as the strength and frequency of storms varies in time and
space. By, defining a specific place (e.g., North Carolina) or time
(e.g., the last decade) the history of storms is more explicitly defined
and can be better comprehended. Before discussing the history of
tropical storms in NC we need to add some context. As you can see in
Table 1 below, NC is defined as a relatively high risk area with 46
direct hits over the period analyzed; only Florida (110) and Texas (59)
were hit by more. These hurricanes took a variety of strengths, shapes
and sizes, and as a result their impacts varied dramatically. Four of
the NC hurricanes are infamously listed as “billion dollar disasters” (http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/img/reports/billion/billion2008.pdf),
and these include Fran (1996), Bonnie (1998), Floyd (1999) and Isabel
(2003). However, none of the NC events were the most deadly, costly or
most intense mainland U.S. hurricanes. The deadliest was a Category 4
hurricane that struck Galveston in 1900. The costliest (in unadjusted
dollars) was Katrina in 2005, totaling ~$100 billion (see link above and
below). The most intense reached 892 millibars in the Florida Keys in
1935. To get more details on the deadliest, costliest and most intense
tropical cyclones in the mainland U.S. from 1851 to 2006, view the
http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/Deadliest_Costliest.shtml. To view
the tracks of recent and historical storms, check out this slick new web
http://www.stormpulse.com/. These can also be viewed,
queried and downloaded from the NOAA Coastal Services Center:
Hurricane direct hits for the mainland U.S. coastline and specific
states 1851-2004. Source: NOAA,
U.S. (Texas to Maine)
As can be seen in Table 1 and below in Figure 1, while many
hurricanes have hit NC, no category 5 storms have made landfall, and
only one category 4 (Hurricane Hazel) crossed into the state. UNC-TV
has ranked the top ten worst hurricanes, and these are listed in Table
2. The costliest was Isabel in 2003 while the deadliest occurred in
August 1879 and September 1883. The 1879 storm was also the strongest
hurricane (by wind speed) to have been experienced in the state.
Figure 1: Landfalling hurricanes of
the continental U.S. Source: NOAA,
http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/gifs/hur5005.jpg. Click to
North Carolina’s 10 Worst Hurricanes according to UNC-TV,
4 (3 in NC)
Note, the number of hurricane hitting NC has varied by decade, with
the last couple decades being particularly high in number (Fig. 2).
Unfortunately, this and other bar graphs (like number of hurricanes per
month) do not provide any insight into the strength of the storms
impacting the coast.
Figure 2: Hurricanes that hit NC by
decade. Source: NC State Climate Office,
Residents of North Carolina are undoubtedly curious
when (i.e., what time of year) the most hurricanes and the worst in
particular, have hit our state. Using a hurricane track GIS dataset
(1851-2005) from the NOAA Coastal Services Center, the wind strengths of
NC tropical storms were plotted by time of year (Fig. 3). Note, a
minimal number of subtropical storms are also included in the database,
but hereafter the term “tropical systems” will be used in the
discussion. This graph (Fig. 3) shows how August, September and October
are clearly the worst months for tropical systems in NC, hurricanes
included. Also, the graph highlights how strong tropical storms (as
defined by wind speed), and specifically hurricanes, have not hit North
Carolina in the month of June in recorded history. Furthermore, July
historically has also been a relatively weak month with only three
direct hits by hurricanes. Also, worth noting, a hurricane has never
made landfall in NC with Category 5 strength (>155 mph). The only
Category 4 hurricane was Hazel (October 15, 1954), although the data
plotted do not reflect this designation.
Graph of NC tropical storm strength (wind speed) versus time of year.
Note, some subtropical storms are included. Created by J.P. Walsh using
data from the NOAA Coastal Services Center and ArcGIS.
Despite our history,
citizens of North Carolina cannot be complacent about hurricanes in
June, or the remainder of the season for that matter, as it only makes one strong or wet
tropical system to make a really bad year. Hurricane Agnes, for
example, which made landfall on June 19 as only a Category 1 hurricane
along the Florida panhandle caused ~$2.1 billion in damage in 1972,
equivalent to about $10.8 billion today (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Agnes).
It was responsible for over 100 deaths. The worst damage from
this storm was not from the wind but rather the torrential rain that
lead to significant flooding in a swath from North Carolina to New York. Meteorologist Chris Showers on his blog reminds
people of a couple other major June storm events: hurricanes Audry
(1957) and Alma (1966). “Audry remains the earliest storm to reach
Category 4 strength in the Atlantic Basin.” In adjusted dollars, Audrey
also would qualify as a billion dollar disaster, causing ~$1 billion in
damage (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Audrey).
Alma is the earliest hurricane to have hit the U.S. Mainland since 1825
It made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane in the Florida Keys on June 8th
in 1966. Ninety people were killed by the event across Honduras, Cuba
and the U.S. In adjusted dollars it also caused ~$1 billion in damage.
So, although the odds of NC experiencing a
strong tropical system in June are low, there remains a reasonable chance.
Figure 3 also highlights how NC historically has
finished strong in hurricane activity and strength. Several of the
strongest hurricanes in NC history arrived in middle to late October
Hazel (10/15/1954) and the
Storm of 1899). All have followed very similar paths, hitting
southern NC strongly, but their occurrence highlights the susceptibility
of the entire coast. Furthermore, a recent paper by
Kiffen (2008) suggests the hurricane season may be getting longer.
If true, this may have important consequences in the future of coastal
North Carolina. Regardless, hurricanes are not the only concern
for North Carolina. Nor'easters have caused considerable damage to
coastal NC, particularly the northern Outer Banks that are exposed to
the strong NE winds and waves. The
Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 is a powerful reminder.
Nevertheless, when hurricane season is upon us,
residents and visitor must be prepared for potential coastal hazards. Please consult the National Hurricane Center web site
your local weather provider often to remain aware of current conditions.
Also, learn more on how to get ready for the next event: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/HAW2/english/disaster_prevention.shtml.