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. Continue reading