Florence is the Worst Flood in East Coast History. Here’s How Locals Describe It.

Yves here. Florence is giving the US a bad taste of the new normal of climate change induced severe storms. And remember, many people could not leave because they could not afford to or were too infirm.

By Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist and staff writer for Grist, covering climate science, policy, and solutions. He has previously written for the Wall Street Journal, Slate, and a variety of other publications. Originally published at Grist

Many of the dire predictions came true. In the past few days, Hurricane Florence has become the worst rainstorm in history for North Carolina, as well as the entire East Coast.

The images streaming in from the thousands of square miles of flooded cities and farmlands across the Carolinas are heartbreaking. From the washed-out beach homes of the Outer Banks to the raging mountain streams in the foothills of the Appalachians, nearly the entire region is underwater. All that rain means dozens of lives have been lost, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced.

Florence’s rainfall data is astonishing. The four-day accumulation of nearly 36 inches, which was measured in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, is far, far above the previous rain record for a hurricane anywhere on the East Coast. It broke the North Carolina record by nearly a foot. That much rain is more than what scientists estimate a 1,000-year level, 60-day rainstorm would drop in the region, given a stable climate: slightly more than 35 inches. Put another way, there’s a 0.1 percent chance every year that in a 60-day period the rainfall in Elizabethtown would be at least 35 inches. North Carolina took on all of that water in just four days.

And as ocean waters warm and the atmosphere changes, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this storm is not just a fluke; there are more Florences in our future.

The region the storm hit hardest is one of the poorest parts of the state, where virtually no one has flood insurance. As bad as it is, the waters in rivers and streams statewide are still rising.

Grist corresponded with 10 Carolinians who grappled with Florence. Here are their stories, edited and condensed for clarity:

Erica Sharpe, Davidson County, North Carolina

There are two types of people here: The ones who panic and empty the grocery shelves, and the ones who don’t trust “the news”, and don’t prepare at all. It could have been a lot worse here, but that kind of split between people has been interesting to watch. Even the weather is dividing people now.

Daniel Hallock, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (evacuated to Georgia)

There were people who would not take the warnings seriously enough. Knowing you gotta leave people behind is an odd feeling.

“Frankie,” Greenville, North Carolina

We’re not allowed to talk to media. It’s against company policy. Many wanted to evacuate, but we deliver fuel. Management pushes gasoline drivers to fill gas stations. Roads are being washed over, sink holes created, towns flooded, but corporate wants the stations pumping.

Ralph Smith, Holly Ridge, North Carolina

I stayed. Where I was, near the landfall, was heavy rain and flooding. The highways were loaded with people trying to evacuate. Plus the gas stations were all full; the one in front of my house closed down early. The day before the storm, there was so much, I thought, “I might as well stay.” So, you just stay and hope for best. The flooding didn’t make it to my house directly, but the streets were extremely wet.

It’s still raining so I’m conflicted on when I’ll be able to drive again. Power has been out for about two or three days. A lot of people around here are worried about their safety while trying to make it out to work in the days after the storm. I know some people that are hesitant about going back to work. I’m just hoping midway through the week it clears up. They aren’t firing anyone for not showing up this week, I know for sure.

Luke Adair, Jacksonville, North Carolina

The thing that stands out the most to me is just how fast the water level in the river rose. We went to bed (around midnight) and there was hardly any water in the culvert [a water conduit under a road]. When we woke up the next morning, water was halfway up the foundation. Tons of homes in our neighborhood were flooded, and they flooded so quickly that the Coast Guard had to come in and rescue two families.

Evacuating was absolutely the right decision for my family. I wish more people would have evacuated as well. But I can tell you, I was glued to the TV and my phone for three days during Hurricane Florence. Not being able to check on your house is one thing, but not knowing [about] your loved ones that decided to stay was another thing.

It’s just so sad to see all of these people’s homes being damaged, people losing their lives, but the support that all of eastern North Carolina has shown has been amazing. People that I don’t know have offered help and even offered up their home for us to stay.

Cameron-Scott Smith, Wilmington, North Carolina

I never envisioned that a storm could hit Wilmington this hard. You see it on TV, but you don’t really expect it to happen to you.

The night the storm came, out power went out at around 1, while I was watching TV, and I decided to go to bed. I slept very well (which I usually don’t).

In the morning I looked out the window, but it was all fogged up. I go downstairs and hear the dog whining, so I got her leash and start walking to the door that leads to garage. I pressed the button to open the garage but I forgot the power was out so I exited through the door that leads into the garage.

The first thing I saw were three large fir trees toppled on each other like fallen dominos. Then I walked to the front yard and saw four trees that sat snapped in half. I looked out in the cul-de-sac which was blocked off by fallen trees. Everything was closed off by fallen trees.

We haven’t had power for three days, and my mom was called into work today. She has to stay there overnight for a week

Our house is so hot. My grandmother came to stay with us because her running water went out. Today we had a crew of guys who came to cut down the fallen trees. Their bulldozer ended up damaging our water line, so our water went out. So we’re left with no water or power.

Johnny Wilson, Chester, South Carolina

One small leak in my roof managed to drip four five-gallon buckets worth of water since yesterday evening. It was an absurd amount of rain.

The mood around town has seemed pretty relieved. Everyone was worried for another Hugo. But our town ended up actually sending supplies to a nearby town because we weren’t impacted nearly as bad as expected.

Alexander Zupancic, Wilmington, North Carolina (evacuated to Charlotte.)

Not being able to communicate with my dad and brother scares the hell out of me. Seeing pictures of my home being torn apart by a storm breaks my heart. Nobody thinks this kind of thing happens to their home until it does. I go to UNC-Wilmington, we have no clue when we can go back or if they’ll suspend the semester.

It’s hard to keep in touch, just saying goodbye to my dad was pretty hard. I did everything I could to try and make him leave, he refused, that was very stressful for me, people don’t understand the real effect a hurricane has and how scary it actually is.

Jeramy “Bud” Martin, Wilmington, North Carolina (evacuated to Arkansas)

I’m from Wilmington, work as an EMT, and can’t get back because of the flooding. My brothers and sisters are exhausted waiting for backup, and I’m in Arkansas with my wife’s family.

I’m trying my best to get back home. I have multiplepeople looking for a route into town for me. There is an organization ([led by] a friend of an Army buddy) that has helped me, as well as another friend that is a pilot that has a ticket for me in Memphis going to Raleigh as soon as I can get there. When I know for a fact the roads are clear, I’m flying out and driving down to my city. My family are here and safe in Arkansas, and that’s my number one priority. So now it’s time to get back to my city and help in any way I can.

Terre Logsdon, Rutherfordton, North Carolina

I arrived in Rutherfordton last week from Lakeport, California, after being evacuated from the Mendocino Complex [Fire] and watching my county burn. I served in the Emergency Operations Center for [this summer’s] Valley Fire, and I was done with fires.

My friends moved to North Carolina from Florida a few years earlier and [told] me to head East. After 10 days on the road, I arrived to hurricane prep. While Rutherfordton has so far only been minimally impacted, it does have me wondering if I made the right decision — or if there are any right decisions to make on where to live anymore.

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  1. Ignacio

    Even the weather is dividing people now

    This should be a wake-up call for civil servants. There will, unfortunately, be more catastrophic climatic events in the future and this “divide” should be analysed if the worst is to be avoided.

      1. In the Land of Farmers

        There is nothing more true than what you said. The same can be said about economics “storms”.

    1. Eduardo

      Even the weather is dividing people now

      I would like to know more about how much of an issue this really is. In my experience, living in the Gulf coast for dozens of years, people generally respect tropical storm and hurricane forecasts. You can see them on radar and satellite on TV. People may hope for the best in terms of severity or that the paths veer away from them but they believe there really is a storm.

      Folks that stay behind may use a lack of belief in the storm (or its path or severity) as a reason to stay but it may just be bluster to cover a fear of leaving or being “unable” to leave. But they generally know they are taking some risk.

      1. Jonathan Holland Becnel

        Ive never evacuated. Katrina Rita Gustav etc. Ive gotten so hammered at a “Hurricane Party” that i went for a drive in the Hurricane. Trees snapping, wind gustin, and rainin like a mf.

        I felt like LT Dan in Forest Gump.

        Im sure itll get me in the end but seeing Nature up close and personal really jacks me up.

    2. notabanker

      I hit the WU blog for updates during the storms. There are a number of really good posters in the disqus comments that point to the myriad of maps, forecasts, advisories etc…. Sure they have their share of bots and trolls, but it doesn’t take long to figure out the regulars, and there is a huge split on global warming / climate change there.

      It’s quite amazing to be looking at the real time impacts of the second once in a thousand year storm in 2 years, while simultaneously another record typhoon blasts the Philippines and Hong Kong. Jeff Masters will make a reference to climate change in a post and people there will go nuts arguing about it.

    3. JohnnySacks

      As Eugene Robinson put it a few years back: “Welcome to the rest of our lives”

      How long before we start shrugging off this type of event as quickly as we shrugged off the Iraq war news and shrug off 18 years of war in Afghanistan?

      Here I live trying not to whine about our gas supply AWOL for possibly 2 months sliding into a winter heating season while a mile away Raytheon sucks the wealth of our generation into a black hole no questions asked and nary a moment of debate. Welcome to the third world.

    4. PlutoniumKun

      A big problem is that people get used to a certain type of ‘storm’ and are slow to change their perception of risk if they’ve never experienced something that bad before. Yesterday a Japanese friend was telling me how other Japanese find Tokyo-ites panic in snow quite amusing. Tokyo is unusual for Japan in that it gets relatively little winter precipitation, so when a rare snow storm does hit the city, all hell breaks loose.

      Last year Ireland got hit with two big storms – one a wind storm, the other snow. The snowstorm was very minor by central European standards and several German and Polish people I know here were openly amused by the country essentially shutting down for what they considered a minor little flurry. But the reality is that its very hard to deal with any type of weather if your infrastructure wasn’t designed for it, and to make it worse, people don’t know how to react. Driving in snow is natural if you are from Minnesota – if you are from Florida, you are likely to kill yourself if you try without taking precautions.

      Of course, its more serious when its cultural or political. I remember when Mt. St. Helens blew there was an old guy being interviewed numerous times by the media – he was a farmer near the mountain who refused to move, insisting that the whole thing was a plot by Democrats to take his land. He died in the eruption. Given the way climate change denial has been culturally embedded in so many parts of the US and Australia, I don’t doubt many will die because people will be too proud to admit that they are wrong.

      1. Norb

        Tunnel vision seems to be the norm, in that the average human mind cannot take numerous variables into account and make life decisions in a timely manner. Just surviving under current environmental conditions is difficult enough- throw in rapid change and people sort themselves fairly quickly into those that can cope, and those that are incapacitated. For the majority, it becomes impossible to peer into the future and imagine possible alternatives- they are consumed by dealing with the “new normal” present environment.

        Humans are, if anything, adaptable. The difference between what could be, and what is becomes a function of social leadership. This blend of dedicated leadership and blind luck speculation inherent to gamblers seem to be the fate of human societies. Today, this balance is heavily skewed toward the gamblers.

        The odd thing today is that the leadership in power embraces human suffering as the norm. Human suffering is taken as a given. It makes them predators of various forms. Ironically, science, technology, and human historical experience have never offered a better time to alleviate that suffering- including poverty.

        Successful gamblers hedge their bets.- or rig the game so they cannot loose. Human hubris has led to thinking that we- as a species- have mastered nature. Climate change is the perfect storm. On the one hand, the predatory gamblers relentlessly keep pushing, believing in their mastery, while the majority herd keep desperately trying to adapt to the resultant conditions. The gamblers will profit until the very end.

        These giant storms offer to highlight this difference in thinking. That of embracing suffering or eradicating it. Embracing it offers “Opportunities” for short term profit while choosing to eradicate it requires changes in lifestyles. This is an existential moment long in the making.

        Most stories will be of the compassionate response of the multitudes to rescue and help the suffering. But if this assistance is not also accompanied with a righteous anger focusing on the inequity of causing suffering in the first place, all this effort will be in vain.

        This thinking follows the insane logic of “Destroying the village in order to save it”, that is the hallmark of American leadership.

        At least the man on the mountain had the decency to perish for his wrong decisions. A person can respect his beliefs even though he was proven wrong. The real unfolding tragedy today is that people in power are making similar boneheaded and shortsighted decisions and don’t pay for their hubris with their lives.

        Is it any wonder that the population is divided and ineffectual in changing course in a meaningful way. Their work and effort is directed in a manner that perpetuates their misery- and they worship those that create the misery in the first place.

  2. Darius

    Good thing the North Carolina legislature just eased restrictions on development in sensitive coastal areas. Any opportunity for corruption is well taken.

  3. Hayek's Heelbiter

    I am originally from North Carolina and watched over the past four decades how scientists have continually warned (and with increasing alarm) state legislators about the dire consequences resulting from the folly of building in low-lying areas, especially the Outer Banks, which have been continually shifting since the last ice age.

    But, as ever, developer money usually trumps common sense and always scientific wisdom. Florence is merely a harbinger of the train wreck that scientists have long predicted is to come.

    Case in point. Several centuries ago my family owned Bodies Island – which is no longer an island but now part of a peninsula.

    I seem to remember from Bible Class that Jesus had warned two millennia ago against “building your house on sand,” Alas, being a conservative Christian state, the North Carolina body politic is extremely selective about which which parts of Jesus’s teachings they choose to heed and those which they choose to ignore.

    1. Wukchumni

      We’ve been here for such a short time, and most everyplace has had it’s time of something wicked this way comes in flooding…

      A flood that raged down the Santa Ana in 1825 caused the river’s course to change temporarily to an outlet at Newport Bay, depositing sediment that partially created Balboa Island.


      Imagine that same flood happening today?

        1. pretzelattack

          my dad was alive for that, as a small child in the baton rouge area. i wish i had asked him about what that was like.

  4. rd

    A recent study indicates that hurricane speeds are slowing down. https://news.wisc.edu/hurricanes-are-slowing-down-and-thats-bad-news/

    So warmer oceans mean more moisture going into the air and slower hurricanes gives it more time to drop that moisture in one place. At the extremes, that turns into Harvey and Florence. Most hurricanes will move 10% slower, so they will drop an extra few inches of rain as they cruise through in a day, but the same changing dynamics appear to be increasing the likelihood of outright stalls and back-tracking that lead to staggering multi-day rainfalls. Wilmington, NC is going to have rain forest type rainfall totals this year, but rain forests usually get that rain spread out over months, not hours.

    I think some of this is related to the same dynamics of reduced temperature contrasts in the winter between the north pole and the temperate zone that keeps having the “polar vortex” popping up in the news in the winter. The polar vortex has always been there, but nobody cared because it used to know its place was actually up near the pole instead of the middle of the US.

  5. The Rev Kev

    I feel so sorry for all those people that had their homes flooded. We had major floods around here several years back and it took months for people to get their lives back on track. One of my most vivid memories was how right after the flood, each driveway had a pile of white-goods piled up out the front as no longer usable – refrigerators, washing machines, freezers, microwave ovens and so on. I expect the same will happen for these people. I hope that they at least had contents insurance.

    Yes, it was a colossal amount of rain that fell and there is a huge area that is now under water. Thing is, I suspect that over time that more and more of these areas will be claimed by the North Atlantic as the sea levels rise. By rights, strips along the coast should be let go back wild to act as buffers for the tracts of land behind them but I suspect that for at least North Carolina, this will never happen under the current crop of leaders. Based on what I have seen here, local authorities still want people to live in at-risk regions as they want those land taxes too much.

    1. rd

      In most coastal areas, the coastal reversion to wild buffers can be either a planned or unplanned event, but it is likely coming over the next 50 years.

      In North Carolina, I think the push to change coastal development will come from inland homeowners when their homeowner’s insurance gets slammed by the surcharges coming to pay for North Carolina’s under-priced wind etc. insurance in eastern NC. Under-priced flood insurance is spread nationally by the federal government, but the NC state insurance policies written for locations where the private insurers are pulling back are only spread among NC homeowners.

  6. JerryDenim

    I’m a native North Carolinian from the southeastern coastal plains. Both sides of my family have roots there going back hundreds of years. I’ve seen my fair share of hurricanes but no longer live in the state. All of my family is still there and everyone is doing fine post-storm, although some of their homes did incur some fairly significant damage. As bad as Florence was it could have been much worse. Despite being a strong Category 4 while being very far north and very close to land, Florence only came ashore as a Category 1. I fear North Carolina has much worse hurricanes in its not-so-distant climate-altered future. I have no doubts storms are becoming stronger and wetter. I have noticed thunderstorms are routinely more powerful and contain more water than they did just a decade ago, particularly in the northeast and upper mid-west/Great Lakes region. If there’s a climate trend besides warming, it seems extreme weather is shifting north. I think it’s just a matter of time before North Carolina starts routinely experiencing land-falling category 4 and 5 hurricanes which were formerly considered more of a Caribbean phenomena. The swampy, low-lying coastal plains of the mid-Atlantic look like they are due to suffer some the worst effects of climate change.

      1. JerryDenim

        Interesting. I have observed the changes myself, but I have not seen anything scientific before. As I mentioned in my comment I have also seen the same changes in the upper-midwest and Great Lakes regions. Places that before would ocassionally see a thunderstorm with a top around 35,000 feet max during the peak summer months of July and August will now routinely have thunderstorms with tops at 45,000 feet or higher, but starting in the spring and lasting through September.

        I have noticed this change in less than a decade. I have been flying jets as an airline pilot since 2004. What is more amazing is when I fly with guys much older than me that have been doing the job for longer who claim not to notice any changes and express climate skepticism. True ostriches. Now that’s no insult to older aviators. I first began my airline career in the early 2000’s, before I had a good feel for what was “normal” concerning the upper atmosphere and the jet stream, I remember meeting guys on their way out the door after long careers, guys that had been flying since the 1960’s telling me how screwed up and erractic the upper atmosphere had become in recent years and they were very worried about climate change. Now I understand, but I’ve never even glimpsed a stable climate unaffected by anthropogenic effects. The rate at which our climate is changing is frightening.

        1. rd

          The standard for evaluating precipitation for hydrologic design for engineering design was Technical Paper No. 40 (1961): http://www.nws.noaa.gov/oh/hdsc/PF_documents/TechnicalPaper_No40.pdf

          NOAA has been updating this in NOAA Atlas 14 and has posted an interactive tool. This is how those “100-year” and 1,000-year” precipitation events are defined so you can do that for your own backyard now if you want:

          Their methodology and other information is available here: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/oh/hdsc/FAQ.html

          Some areas haven’t changed much, but many areas are seeing a slow upwards creep of precipitation amounts of 5-10% since the data used to compile Technical Paper No. 40 in the middle of the century.

    1. Conrad

      Wow, you things are getting pretty extreme when they break out the log scale to graph the river heights…
      The one I clicked on at random (Cape Fear River at Illington, NC) is over three times the previous maximum!

  7. Jeremy Grimm

    The government response immediately after Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico and to the present is horrifying. How is and will the government handle the aftermath of Hurricane Florence?

    Watching Florence approach I wondered what would happen if it hit the East Coast a little higher up. How would it have impacted Washington, D.C. or Baltimore, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Delaware, or the NYC area?

    I thought there was more time to prepare for Climate Disruption but changes seem to be happening faster and stronger than I was predicting — and I’ve always believed the worst case predictions reported from our climate models were less than what would actually occur.

    1. JBird

      The government response immediately after Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico and to the present is horrifying. How is and will the government handle the aftermath of Hurricane Florence?

      Let’s not forget that a dysfunctional federal government is desired by many as a tool to destroy it. In their desire to cut eliminate taxes and regulations either because of a Republican Party/Koch like desire to protect all those oppressed rich people or a Washington Consensus type Democratic Party/FIRE goal of “Neoliberalism is the the best thing ever!” this dysfunction will not only continue but increase. Add in the increasing army of reserve workers and the steady efforts to replace American workers will more imported effectively enslaved workers and the fecal matter is about to really hit the fan.

      Fortunately, the increasingly powerful, unchecked, and incompetent security state is here to protect us all.

    2. rd

      “The government” – this includes local, state (territory), and federal. In Puerto Rico’s case, all three were dysfunctional. Other disasters have varying levels of dysfunction.

      Sandy was a taste of what would happen in the northeast. However, it came on shore relatively quickly so its storm surge only hit about half the areas at high tide. Florence had a high storm surge over 2-3 high tide cycles. If Sandy had slowed down before hitting the coast like Florence did, Connecticut and west shore of Long Island would have had storm surges similar to NJ, and the Rockaways because storm surge would have coincided with high tide there. The high tide in Long Island Sound is not at the same time as the south/west side of Manhattan, so the peak storm surge in Long Island Sound occurred much lower in the tide cycle. Places like Bridgeport, CT would have made the news like Hoboken regarding flooding if the storm surge had happened at high tide.

      Also, rainfall would have been about double, so the upland flooding would have been much greater. The hurricane force winds would have lasted about 2-3 times as long and would have caused much more damage.

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