What Was North Carolina’s Greatest Hurricane?

Hurricane Hazel destruction in Southport, North Carolina

A woman climbs through debris surrounding the remains of Harrelson’s Grocery on the riverfront in Southport after Hurricane Hazel. (Photo by Art Newton; courtesy of Punk Spencer)

It’s one of the most common questions I hear from readers: “What was North Carolina’s worst hurricane?”

Some think it’s Hazel. Others talk about Fran or Floyd. Usually, they pause to wait for a one-word response—but it’s not quite that simple.

It’s just human nature to want to compare one storm with another, but choosing the greatest? The truth is, the answer depends on what measuring stick is used and over what period of time comparisons are made.

Meteorologists focus on storm track and intensity, and their measurements define hurricanes by extremes in wind, tide, rainfall, and barometric pressure. Pressure readings are particularly important—the lower the barometer, the more powerful the storm. Meteorologists use the Saffir-Simpson scale to rate intensity, categorizing hurricanes from 1 to 5. Thankfully, North Carolina hasn’t experienced a Cat 5, at least not since reliable recordkeeping began in the mid-1800s.

Hurricanes can also be ranked by the dollar damages they bring to communities they strike. Homes, businesses, boats, vehicles, public infrastructure, crops, livestock, and timber are vulnerable to powerful hurricane winds, extreme coastal storm surge, and devastating freshwater flooding. And hurricanes tracking inland (like Fran and Floyd) are often even more costly.

Sadly, it’s also important to acknowledge the heavy toll hurricanes claim in lost lives. While property losses have risen exponentially, hurricane-related deaths in the U.S have trended downward. Though fatalities have generally declined, recent mega-storms Katrina (1,200 deaths) and Sandy (285 deaths) remind us how deadly modern, urban hurricanes can sometimes be.

So yes, we could rank North Carolina’s greatest hurricanes by intensity, dollars, or deaths—but how do we compare modern disasters with earlier hurricanes, when meteorological details are less known and impacts undocumented?

Our hurricane record begins with the first European explorers. Early hurricanes sank ships, destroyed coastal villages, flattened crops, and left untold destruction across the state. But when compared with modern hurricanes, early storms largely impacted sparsely populated areas and caused far fewer damages.

Could the state’s greatest hurricane have swept ashore centuries ago? Perhaps.

Maybe it was the massive hurricane of September 1846 that crept slowly over Pamlico Sound, opening two new inlets on the Outer Banks within 24 hours (Hatteras Inlet and Oregon Inlet). Or perhaps it was the storm that swamped Wrightsville Beach on a full moon tide in September 1856, destroying large stands of live oak that once covered the island. Another contender was the violent September 1883 hurricane that struck the same region, claiming 53 lives along the lower Cape Fear—the most of any storm to that date.

You get the idea. There are lots of possibilities.

In order to offer a reasonable answer to the question, I’ve chosen five North Carolina hurricane disasters, each a benchmark for its time (all from the twentieth century). Among the five, most are familiar names, but at least one is likely unknown to most North State readers.

5. Hurricane Hugo

Once projected to strike near Morehead City, Hugo was a large Cat 4 when it slammed into the South Carolina low country in September 1989. Winds topped 130 mph, and the 19-foot storm surge at Bulls Bay was the highest ever recorded on the East Coast. As Hugo barreled inland, South Carolina suffered its greatest storm in history. But North Carolina?

Ask anyone who was living in Charlotte or Gastonia at the time. They’ll tell you stories about massive hardwoods crushing parked cars, streets barricaded by downed trees, and power outages that lasted for weeks. Hugo demonstrated once again that you don’t need to live at the coast to get slammed. Seven North Carolinians died. U.S. losses totaled $7 billion, and with $1 billion in North Carolina, Hugo became the state’s costliest hurricane to date.

4. Great Flood of 1916

Sometimes known as the Great Asheville Flood, this one’s not well known but easily deserves a place on this list. Like Hugo, it’s another epic Tar Heel disaster caused by a hurricane making landfall elsewhere. Two storms actually—one on the Mississippi coast and the second near Charleston days later. Both systems dissipated over the Appalachians, establishing a new U.S. 24-hour rainfall record near Asheville on July 16: 22.22 inches.

Flooding along the Swannanoa and French Broad Rivers was unprecedented. Homes slid down mountain slopes; Mudslides washed away railroad trestles, stranding hundreds of passengers. Estimates vary, but the flood claimed as many as 80 lives, ranking it among the deadliest of all North Carolina disasters.

3. Hurricane Fran

The 1996 season delivered Hurricanes Bertha and Fran to the Tar Heel coast, a one-two punch unlike any since the mid 1950s. Bertha arrived in July, Fran just weeks later in early September. Fran was a Cat 3 at landfall, with 115 mph winds and a storm surge that exceeded 10 feet on local beaches. Its inland track followed Interstate 40 to Raleigh where 70-mph gusts toppled trees, signs, and utility poles along every street. Along with those high winds came flash floods that trapped residents and swirled knee-deep inside Crabtree Valley Mall. Not since Hazel had the Triangle suffered destruction on this scale.

After Fran’s destructive tour, it was soon recognized as North Carolina’s new benchmark for hurricane destruction: $5.2 billion in damages and 24 fatalities.

2. Hurricane Hazel

There’s no doubt that of the storms mentioned here, Hazel was the most violent. The only Cat 4 known to strike the state blasted ashore in October 1954, when oceanfront cottages from Myrtle Beach to Topsail Island were largely vacant. This timing might have reduced potential casualties, but a record tidal surge—made worse by a full moon tide—crushed homes or swept them into nearby marshes. Winds were some of the highest ever measured in the state. Gusts on the Brunswick beaches topped 140 mph and ranged from 110-120 mph in Fayetteville, Goldsboro, and Kinston. Hazel raced through Raleigh and into Virginia and the Northeast, where 100-mph gusts were recorded in seven states.

Those who remember Hazel tell remarkable stories. Residents in Ocean Isle, Wrightsville and Topsail Beaches saw homes “disappear” into the pounding surf. Extreme winds blasted farms and neighborhoods across the state, leaving behind mountains of trees, torn roofs, twisted powerlines, and debris. Damages in North Carolina topped $136 million (1954 dollars); 19 deaths were reported.

1. Hurricane Floyd

Floyd weakened considerably before striking near Cape Fear as a Cat 2 in September 1999. Hurricane Dennis had landed just weeks before, setting the stage for what would become the greatest flood in North Carolina history.

Though Floyd’s impact on the coast shouldn’t be discounted, it wasn’t storm surge or freakish winds that make it our greatest hurricane disaster. It was rain. Some stations reported more than 15 inches. Floodwaters backed up into streets, businesses and homes. Some of the worst flooding was along the Tar and Neuse Rivers, in places like Rocky Mount, Wilson, Goldsboro, Greenville, Tarboro, Warsaw, and Kinston. For many victims, floods came quietly while they slept—some were awakened to realize their backs were wet.

In the end, Floyd’s toll in North Carolina was epic: Its $6 billion in losses surpassed Fran’s $5.2 billion mark set just three years earlier. Sixty-six counties were declared disaster areas, 63,000 homes were flooded, and more than 1,500 people had to be rescued—many airlifted to safety by helicopter. But it was the heartbreaking loss of 52 lives that was most tragic, making Floyd not only the most costly North Carolina hurricane, but one of the deadliest.

This article originally appeared in North State Journal.