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NC Hurricane History: A Historically Slow Start and Strong Finish

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 following report: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/Deadliest_Costliest.shtml.  To view the tracks of recent and historical storms, check out this slick new web site: http://www.stormpulse.com/.  These can also be viewed, queried and downloaded from the NOAA Coastal Services Center: http://maps.csc.noaa.gov/hurricanes/viewer.html.

 Table 1: Hurricane direct hits for the mainland U.S. coastline and specific states 1851-2004.  Source: NOAA, http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/paststate.shtml.

Area

Category Number

All
(1-5)

Major
(3-5)

1

2

3

4

5

U.S. (Texas to Maine)

109

72

71

18

3

273

92

Texas

23

17

12

7

0

59

19

(North)

12

6

3

4

0

25

7

(Central)

7

5

2

2

0

16

4

(South)

9

5

7

1

0

22

8

Louisiana

17

14

13

4

1

49

18

Mississippi

2

5

7

0

1

15

8

Alabama

11

5

6

0

0

22

6

Florida

43

32

27

6

2

110

35

(Northwest)

27

16

12

0

0

55

12

(Northeast)

13

8

1

0

0

22

1

(Southwest)

16

8

7

4

1

36

12

(Southeast)

13

13

11

3

1

41

15

Georgia

12

5

2

1

0

20

3

South Carolina

19

6

4

2

0

31

6

North Carolina

21

13

11

1

0

46

12

Virginia

9

2

1

0

0

12

1

Maryland

1

1

0

0

0

2

0

Delaware

2

0

0

0

0

2

0

New Jersey

2

0

0

0

0

2

0

Pennsylvania

1

0

0

0

0

1

0

New York

6

1

5

0

0

12

5

Connecticut

4

3

3

0

0

10

3

Rhode Island

3

2

4

0

0

9

4

Massachusetts

5

2

3

0

0

10

3

New Hampshire

1

1

0

0

0

2

0

Maine

5

1

0

0

0

6

0

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 enlarge.

Table 2:  North Carolina’s 10 Worst Hurricanes according to UNC-TV, http://www.unctv.org/hurricane/ncsworst.html.

Name

Category

Maximum Wind

NC Deaths

NC Damage

August 1879

4

168

40+

NA

August 1899

4

140

25

NA

Hazel, 1954

4

150

19

$136 million

Donna, 1960

4 (3 in NC)

120

8

$25 million

Hugo, 1989

4 (3 in NC)

100

7

$1 billion

September 1883

3

100+

53

NA

Fran, 1996

3

115

24

$5.2 billion

Floyd, 1999

2

90

25

$4.5 billion

Isabel. 2003

3

105

25

$14.2 billion

Connie, 1955

3

n/a

25

NA

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, http://www.nc-climate.ncsu.edu/climate/hurricane.php

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.   

 

Figure 3: 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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Alma_(1966)).  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 (Unnamed (10/13/1983), Hazel (10/15/1954)  and the Halloween 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 (http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/) or 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.

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