Hurricane FAQs

Jay Barnes answers frequently asked questions about North Carolina’s and Florida’s hurricane history

Meet Jay Barnes, author of North Carolina’s Hurricane History (third edition, June 2001) and Florida’s Hurricane History (second edition, May 2007) and Faces From the Flood: Hurricane Floyd Remembered (February 2004). Director of the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, he often gives presentations about hurricane preparedness and the history of hurricanes in America. Here he responds to the questions he is most frequently asked during his public appearances.

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 stormsÑbut 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 the definition of “worst.” Hurricane Floyd is the latest candidate. When it made landfall in September 1999, it was in a downward transition to a category-two storm. However, with streams and rivers of the eastern counties already filled from the summer rains, Floyd was a monstrous flood producer that is now recognized as the greatest disaster in North Carolina history. Before Floyd, Hurricane Fran, which made landfall near Cape Fear in September 1996, was the most destructive storm in North Carolina history. It 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 due to a lack of sufficient weather data. 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. Hurricane Andrew was by far the most destructive ($30 billion), damaging or destroying more property than any other hurricane in U.S. history until Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005 ($80+ billion). The September Hurricane of 1928, which made landfall near Palm Beach, was the state’s most deadly 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: 26.35 inches. It remains the most intense hurricane known to have made landfall in the United States.

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 HuntÕs 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 floodÕs 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 CarolinaÕs 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 web sites listed here under Jay’s Picks. 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 Jay for a lecture or presentation on hurricane history?

A: Jay often gives presentations on hurricane history, and has presented to university classes, meteorology groups, insurance companies, historical societies, museums, libraries, and national conferences. Information on scheduling Jay for a slide lecture can be found under Book a Speaking Engagement.