September 11, 2018

The Case for Preparing for Hurricane Florence Even If You're Hundreds of Miles Inland

Hurricane warnings are in effect for the North Carolina and South Carolina coasts ahead of Hurricane Florence, a powerful category four storm that's expected to make landfall on Friday. The hurricane will slow to a crawl near the coast, producing historic rainfall totals that will likely lead to catastrophic flooding across parts of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.

If you've followed my writing for a while, you know that I'm averse to hype. Hyping up "normal" bad weather sucks because it takes the punch out of truly disastrous storms. It's the Crying Wolf Effect in action. This is not one of those storms. If the current forecasts pan out, Hurricane Florence is on track to become a generational storm in North Carolina. This could be the storm to which all future storms are compared for decades to come, much like Hurricane Hazel in 1954 or Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

Sustained winds greater than 100 MPH and a destructive storm surge exceeding nine feet above ground level in spots would lead to widespread damage in coastal communities where the center of the storm makes landfall. The storm's size would allow damaging winds and a life-threatening storm surge to extend far up and down the coast from the point of landfall. This will be a large storm when it approaches land and its size will bring hazardous conditions to an area hundreds of miles wide.

This hurricane won't only be a coastal disaster. Florence's flooding rain and wind could extend far inland away from the coast. Flooding is possible hundreds of miles away from where the hurricane makes landfall. You need to prepare for the wind and rain from the storm even if you live as far inland as the mountains.

The water section at my Walmart was mostly wiped out by 3:00 PM Monday.

I do not live on the coast. I do not live anywhere near the coast. It would be an all-day production to drive from where I live to the coast. But I've spent the past two days in and out of grocery stores getting ready for Hurricane Florence. We make a mistake when we think of hurricanes as purely a nuisance for people who built their homes 100 feet from the water. Hurricanes—and this hurricane in particular—won't begin to unleash its full potential until the storm is inland.

But while we always focus on the point of landfall (for good reason!), it's just the beginning of Florence's story. I wrote an article for Popular Science  on Monday detailing why Hurricane Florence could be such a big deal for inland areas far beyond the coast:
Weather models generally agree that the storm is likely to make landfall in North Carolina during the day on Thursday. The storm is also likely to slow to a crawl once it moves inland. The hurricane is moving into the bottom of a strong ridge of high pressure over the eastern United States and Canada. Ridges usually foster calm weather, but that calm environment will force Florence to sit and spin over the same areas for days on end. Without any other weather systems to push Florence along, some models don’t see Florence moving out of the region until early next week.
In fact, you'd be forgiven for thinking you've seen this entire storm before and this is some protracted fever dream. We went through a slightly similar event last year with Hurricane Harvey. That hurricane made landfall as a category four, stalled out over land, and dumped historic amounts of rain over coastal parts of Texas and Louisiana.

The amount of rain that could fall in Hurricane Florence may be unlike anything recorded from a tropical cyclone in this part of the country. Our country's recent history with horrendous flash flooding caused by landfalling tropical systems should inform the actions of anyone in the Carolinas and Mid-Atlantic this week. If forecasts hold true, Florence looks likely to break the record for most rain ever produced by a tropical cyclone in North Carolina, a spot currently held by the two feet of rain dropped during Hurricane Floyd.

The heaviest rain and strongest winds will be determined by the exact track of the hurricane. But don't just focus on a couple of points on a map. The NHC's track forecasts—like the one at the top of this post—only apply to the center of the storm. The heavy rain, wind, and storm surge can extend hundreds of miles from the center of the storm, and that will certainly be the case with Florence.

Not only that, but the center of a storm historically stays within the cone of uncertainty 66% of the time. The average error for NHC track forecasts is more than 100 miles after 4 or 5 days.  The window of possible tracks for this hurricane could take it anywhere from South Carolina to the Virginia Tidewater.

The meteorologists at the NHC are experts in their field, and they use their experience with the preponderance of evidence to come up with their forecasts. They believe that their current forecast is the most likely scenario based on the evidence before them. Models will refine their guidance and meteorologists will improve their forecasts as we get closer to landfall on Friday.

Monday afternoon's rainfall forecast from NOAA'S Weather Prediction Center.

According to current forecasts, intense rainfall is likely along coastal regions of North Carolina. Wilmington, N.C., could see several feet of rain by the end of the weekend if the storm does indeed make landfall there. Flooding rain is most likely in eastern and central parts of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.

The bullseye for the heaviest rain will keep moving around as forecasters refine their track predictions as we draw closer to landfall and they can figure out how the storm is going to meander once it gets near or over land.

Inland flash flooding is the silent killer in storms like this. Many people believe that they're safe from a hurricane's ill effects because they're nowhere near the coast. That wasn't the case in Louisiana in 2016, Texas in 2017, and it won't be the case this week with Florence.

Some communities may set all-time rainfall records. The record for the most rain ever recorded in a three-day period in Roanoke, VA, is 8.99" set in 1987. That record was 6.99" in Danville, VA, set in 2008. The most rain recorded at Raleigh-Durham Airport in a three-day stretch was 10.05", and 19.66" is the top three-day total in Wilmington, N.C. Unfortunately, all of those records could be broken this weekend.

If you live inland, please do not ignore this storm. Areas that don't typically flood—and areas outside of designated flood zones—may flood with unprecedented rainfall. Incredibly heavy rain can easily wash out roads and cut off your routes around town. Water that looks shallow may not be. Even if you're unaffected at home, your ability to get around town may be severely hampered or impossible due to flooded roadways.

There's also the issue of power outages. I drive home this point a lot because the power grids in my county—and in many rural areas—are fragile. We lose power during an obnoxious summertime thunderstorm. The potential for sustained winds of 20-40 MPH (with higher gusts) reaching far inland, along with rain-soaked ground, could easily bring down trees and power lines. Power companies will have a hard time keeping up with all of the power outages. It may take longer than normal for crews to restore power to your neighborhood.

FOOD: I say it over and over again, but you don't realize how much you use electricity until you really need it. How much food do you have in your house that you can eat without having to cook it or keep it cold? Would you be able to feed yourself and your family for several days without cooking, refrigeration, or getting food from a restaurant? We laugh at people for rushing to the store to stock up before a snowstorm, but it really is necessary under threat from a hurricane.

WATER: Stocking up on water—bottled or stored from the tap—is important. You've got pretty good odds of the water staying on even if the power goes out. But if you're in an area that experiences an exceptional power outage or bad flooding, municipal pumping stations or treatment plants may be compromised. Under normal circumstances, officials would issue a boil water advisory and you'd be fine, but it's usually impossible to boil water at home during a storm when you have no electricity.

LIGHTS: Batteries and flashlights are another important but overlooked supply. Many folks probably use the flashlight feature on their cell phone these days and may not have an actual flashlight in their house. If the power goes out, you'll need to conserve every precious bit of battery you've got in your cell phone. "Power Outage Dark" is one of the darkest darks you'll experience outside of camping in the wilderness or sailing with the lights off. The moon's phase during the hurricane will be a waxing crescent—not much help to those without power, and even less so with thick clouds overhead.

CELL PHONE: Think about your cell phone, too. A portable battery pack is a good investment to make. Most are good for at least one full charge of your cell phone, if not more. You can also charge your cell phone in the car, but you run the risk of wasting precious gas or draining your car's battery. If you have no way to charge your phone in a power outage, shut it off and use it with your battery saving settings turned to max. (Some phones also have an "emergency" setting that disables almost all features to conserve battery life.)

MEDS/CASH/ETC.: Think about all the other things you'd need if the power goes out or you're cut off from getting around town for several days. Do you have enough prescription meds to get you through to next week? How about toilet paper? It's a cliché that goes without saying, but fill up your gas tank. After all, gas stations will likely shut down without power. That brings up another issue—if the power goes out, your credit/debit card does you no good. If you can afford to have some cash on hand, it'll help if you need to buy things and retailers around town are open and cash-only.

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate your calm and sober assessment letting us know the Big Bang is rolling down Thunder Alley