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.

5. 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 Hurricane Hugo that razed Charlotte in 1989, it’s another epic Tar Heel disaster caused by a hurricane making landfall elsewhere. It was 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.

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Hurricanes and Politics

Florida's Hurricane History, 2nd edition, by Jay Barnes

Thus far, Tropical Storm Issac has captured significant attention this hurricane season, as the first storm to show potential for threatening the U.S. with hurricane force. Of course, a lot remains to be seen about its forecast track, and particularly how much energy it can muster after dragging across Haiti and Cuba before heading our way. It’s early, and the news media in particular wants to get in front of the story, but at this point Issac could end up as an uneventful rainmaker across southwest Florida and perhaps a category-one hurricane on the panhandle coast.

It’s not likely to be an epic event in our hurricane history, though as all hurricane aficionados will tell you, even tropical storms or category-ones can be deadly and destructive. Just ask anyone from eastern North Carolina through New England who suffered heavy damages from Hurricane Irene last year.

Tropical Storm Isaac, 5pm Friday 082412, NOAA graphic

Tropical Storm Isaac, 5pm Friday 082412, NOAA graphic

Much of the news coverage for Issac has focused on Tampa, host city for the Republican National Convention set to get underway on Monday. There’s good reason to focus attention on Tampa too, because along with the entire Tampa Bay area, it is the U.S. city most vulnerable to a major hurricane.

What? Not New Orleans? Well, for a variety of reasons, Tampa has more at stake. It has a considerably larger metropolitan population, a more challenging evacuation situation, and a complacent citizenry that has never experienced a direct hit from a hurricane in its collective lifetime.

In late summer 1935, Tampa was embroiled in perhaps its greatest period of political turmoil. Continue reading