Q: What brought about your interest in hurricanes?
A: Growing up in Southport, North Carolina, I heard many stories about the destruction caused by Hazel in October 1954. I was fascinated by these stories, but developed a stronger interest while developing programs and exhibits on hurricanes for the North Carolina Aquarium in the early 1980s. Since I am not a trained meteorologist, my books are focused on the impacts of the storms—but they still include the weather information.
Q: How long did it take to write the books?
North Carolina’s Hurricane History, which was first published in 1995, took almost two years to research, and a year to write. Florida’s Hurricane History was a more formidable task, as the research was gathered over three years and the writing took about eighteen months. Every few years, as more hurricanes strike our coasts, these books require updated editions, requiring the gathering of more weather data, news reports, personal interviews and photographs.
Q: How did you do your research?
A: As with most books of history, I studied the works of historians who have preceded me. Over the years, weather historians like David M. Ludlum and Ivan R. Tannehill have compiled definitive reports on many of the storms of interest. Government records from the National Weather Service (and U.S. Weather Bureau) were available for hurricanes since the 1870s, and these reports were obtained during visits to the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina. Countless other books, magazine articles, government reports, and newspaper accounts were gathered through inter-library loan and via the Internet (a complete listing of sources is included in the Appendix of each book). Personal interviews with hurricane survivors were conducted whenever possible. But by far, the greatest challenge of these projects was the search for historical photographs that illustrate the impact of hurricanes. Recent storms have been well-documented, but photos from storms of long ago were much more difficult to find.
Q: How does North Carolina’s hurricane history compare with that of other states? What about Florida?
A: North Carolina ranks third, after Florida and Texas, in the number of hurricane strikes since 1899 (Louisiana and North Carolina often alternate between third and fourth). Florida has had far more hurricanes than any other state—more than twice as many landfalls as North Carolina since 1899.
Q: What was the worst hurricane to strike North Carolina?
A: The answer(s) to this question depend upon your definition of “worst.” (See the chart of the Deadliest, Costliest, and Most Intense Hurricanes in NC.) Hurricane Florence is the latest candidate, due to its widespread impact and $22 billion toll in NC. When it made landfall in September 2018, it was in downward transition to a category-one storm. Record-setting rains brought new river flood records across numerous southeastern counties in North Carolina and upper portions of South Carolina. Thirty inches of rain in some coastal areas made Florence a monstrous flood producer that could easily be considered the greatest disaster in North Carolina history. Prior to Florence, Hurricane Floyd in September 1999 was perhaps the state’s worst, with $6 billion in damages (1999 dollars) and 52 fatalities. Hurricane Fran, which made landfall near Cape Fear in September 1996, left behind a trail of wreckage from the coast to the Capitol and beyond, with a total cost estimated to exceed $4 billion. Hurricane Hugo, which struck the South Carolina beaches and moved through western North Carolina in September 1989, caused $1 billion in damages in the Tar Heel state and $7 billion overall. Hurricane Hazel, which struck Brunswick County in October 1954, didn’t match the dollar damages of Fran, but was a more powerful storm. Hazel was a category four hurricane with winds of 140 mph and a 17-foot storm surge. Hurricane Fran was a category three. The hurricane of September 1883 is believed to have killed more people (53) than any other North Carolina hurricane. Other hurricanes in the past are likely to have equaled or surpassed Hazel’s strength, although these cannot be verified. Some likely candidates include the hurricanes of 1879, 1856, 1769, and 1752. No category five hurricane is known to have made landfall on the North Carolina coast.
Q: What was Florida’s worst hurricane?
A: Once again, several storms come to mind. (See the chart of the Deadliest, Costliest, and Most Intense Hurricanes in Florida.) Category five Hurricane Andrew was by far the most destructive ($30 billion in 1992 dollars), damaging or destroying more property than any other hurricane in U.S. history until Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005 ($125 billion). In 2017, Category 4 Hurricane Irma topped Andrew’s toll with $50 billion in losses, with 7 direct fatalities in Florida. The September Hurricane of 1928, which made landfall near Palm Beach, was the state’s deadliest disaster. It killed over 2,000 people, most of whom drowned in the surging waters of Lake Okeechobee. The most powerful Florida hurricane, however, was the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. It blasted the Keys with winds over 175 mph and established a record low for barometric pressure at landfall: 892 mb. It remains the most intense hurricane known to have made landfall in the United States. Hurricane Michael struck the panhandle in 2018 as a category 5, and with a pressure of 919 mb, became the third most intense U.S. hurricane landfall.
Q: What did you find most intriguing about your hurricane research?
A: I enjoyed reporting on the unusual and often amazing events that have occurred during major hurricanes. These include daring rescues, natural phenomena, crime sprees, odd relocations, and incredible feats of survival. Some of my favorites include: the story of Connie and Jerry Helms, who rode out Hurricane Hazel’s storm tide in the treetops of Long Beach, North Carolina; the story of the Providence Methodist Church in Swan Quarter, North Carolina, which was mysteriously relocated in the Hurricane of 1876; and the incredible ordeal of hurricane researcher Stan Goldenberg and his family, who survived Hurricane Andrew as their home collapsed over them.
Q: How did your Faces from the Flood project come about?
A: In 2002, State Treasurer Richard Moore contacted me and asked if I would be interested in co-authoring a book on Hurricane Floyd. When the Floyd disaster unfolded in September 1999, Richard was Governor Hunt’s Secretary of Crime Control and Public Safety, so he was actively involved with state emergency managers, the highway patrol, and the National Guard. He worked long hours across the affected counties, and spoke with many of the flood’s victims. For this book, Richard and I identified over three dozen people for interviews, and their stories were recorded and edited for Faces from the Flood. In addition, dozens of the best photographs that document the disaster were collected for publication. Faces from the Flood serves as a lasting memory and record of North Carolina’s greatest disaster.
Q: Where should I look to learn more about hurricanes?
A: There are many good sources of information available on tropical storms and hurricanes. For those with Internet access, I recommend the websites listed on my Resources page. One especially helpful site in my list is Chris Landsea’s Hurricane FAQ, which has answers to many of the most frequently asked questions about hurricanes. Numerous other sites provide a wealth of information on preparedness, history, and real-time data. Dozens of books have been written on all aspects of hurricane dynamics, history, and preparedness. Some of the most useful references are listed in the Appendixes of my books. I would also highly recommend that those living in areas vulnerable to hurricanes consult with their local emergency management coordinators to obtain local floodplain information and evacuation procedures for their communities.
Q: How do I find out about booking you for a lecture or presentation on hurricane history?
A: I often give presentations on hurricane history, and have presented to university classes, meteorology groups, insurance companies, historical societies, museums, libraries, and national conferences. For more information, see my Book a Speaking Engagement page.