In September 2018, Hurricane Florence, although classified as a Category 1 storm on the Saffir-Simpson wind scale, unleashed a colossal and destructive storm surge along the North Carolina coast. This remarkable event shattered all-time high-water records that had stood for decades. In this article, we delve into the unprecedented storm surge brought about by Hurricane Florence and its implications, shedding light on the sheer magnitude of the disaster and the factors contributing to this extraordinary event.
Unprecedented Coastal Devastation
As Hurricane Florence made landfall, its massive wind field generated a storm surge that surged over the coastal areas, setting remarkable records. Two tide gauges, Beaufort and Wilmington, both with historical records dating back to 1954 or earlier, recorded high-water levels that surpassed any previous measurements. Wrightsville Beach, the third station in this trio, documented its third-highest water level on record.
The significance of these records cannot be overstated. Storm surge data extending over several decades is inherently challenging to surpass, but the magnitude of Florence's surge demonstrated its unparalleled destructive force. The National Hurricane Center even warned that water levels in eastern North Carolina could rise up to 12 feet above ground, underscoring the ongoing threat posed by this relentless storm surge.
Coastal Communities Under Siege
Some of the most devastating storm surges were reported in New Bern and Emerald Isle, North Carolina, where water levels reached 10.1 feet and 7.0 feet above ground, respectively. The Neuse River, in particular, overflowed its banks, causing significant flooding in New Bern, where some residents found themselves trapped on their rooftops. Over 200 people were rescued, with an additional 120 awaiting rescue as the disaster unfolded.
Historical Context: Wilmington's Water Level Records
Wilmington, North Carolina, a city with storm tide records dating back to 1935, experienced a record-breaking high water level during Hurricane Florence. The water level reached 3.60 feet above the high tide mark (Mean Higher High Water), surpassing the previous record of 3.48 feet set during Hurricane Matthew in 2016. This new record was classified as more than a 1-in-100-year event, highlighting the extraordinary nature of Florence's impact.
The significance of this record becomes even more apparent when considering the changing landscape due to sea-level rise. Over the years, sea levels in Wilmington have risen by nearly 8 inches, primarily due to human-induced climate change. This increased sea level, in part, enabled Florence to surpass records that had remained unbroken for decades.
Beaufort's Unprecedented Water Level
In Beaufort, North Carolina, another station with records dating back to 1954, Hurricane Florence brought about a storm surge of 5.51 feet, breaking the previous all-time water level record set during Hurricane Hazel in 1954. The sea level in Beaufort has risen by approximately 0.7 feet since Hazel's time, with human-induced climate change playing a significant role in this increase. This rise in sea level facilitated Florence's ability to surpass the historical record.
Wrightsville Beach: A Unique Challenge
Wrightsville Beach, located just 10 miles east of Wilmington, recorded its third-highest water level on record during Hurricane Florence. The striking difference in water levels between this location and Wilmington can be attributed to the distinct geographical features of the two areas. Wilmington's tide gauge is positioned on the Cape Fear River, approximately 20 miles inland from the coast. This placement shielded it from the full force of Hurricane Florence's surge. Wrightsville Beach, on the other hand, had a more direct encounter with the hurricane's sustained onshore winds.
North Topsail Beach: Vulnerable to Coastal Flooding
North Topsail Beach, North Carolina, faced the full brunt of Hurricane Florence's storm surge. This community, known for its vulnerability to coastal flooding, took a direct hit from the hurricane. Ranked as one of the most dangerous locations for development on the U.S. East Coast, North Topsail Beach is characterized by its low and narrow profile. It has only one escape road, which is prone to flooding, even during the early stages of a hurricane.
The single row of dunes that once offered protection to the island was eroded by past storms, making the area even more susceptible to inundation. Development on North Topsail Beach has faced criticism due to the considerable risk it poses, and residents are unable to obtain flood insurance or certain forms of disaster aid from the Federal Government due to the Coastal Barrier Resource Act.
The storm surge brought by Hurricane Florence in 2018 was nothing short of historic. Breaking long-standing high-water records, it demonstrated the devastating power of hurricanes, exacerbated by rising sea levels resulting from climate change. Understanding the impact of this storm surge is crucial in preparing for future events and addressing the challenges posed by coastal development in vulnerable areas. The unparalleled force of Florence's storm surge serves as a sobering reminder of the need for proactive measures to mitigate the impact of future hurricanes on coastal communities.