Experts: Hurricane Florence could be a deadly storm

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Officials stress folks to evacuate because lives are much more important than property — or tempting Mother Nature

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Homes destroyed. Entire streets under water. Power outages through next week. Monster waves crashing ashore. And the overarching message from the experts: Hurricane Florence could be deadly.

You can replace things, including your house, they said.

You can’t replace people.

“Right now, it’s time to get out of harm’s way,” said Tom Collins, emergency management director for Pender County. “We can come back and fix things.”

New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties, as well as municipalities in the region, have issued either mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders as Florence churns toward the Wilmington region. Gov. Roy Cooper issued a mandatory evacuation for all of the state’s barrier islands Tuesday afternoon.

The storm is expected to be at least a Category 3, major hurricane when it makes landfall late Thursday night or early Friday morning.

The storm itself

Experts said the storm will bring catastrophic winds of 130 mph or more, heavy rain, huge waves, storm surges and inland flooding. At most risk for wind damage are buildings along the coast or in open areas that don’t have a buffer of trees or other buildings to lessen the impact, said Spencer Rogers, a coastal engineering expert with N.C. Sea Grant.

“In a highly exposed building, 130 mph is more than enough to knock the roof off of a poorly designed building,” Rogers said.

>>READ MORE: Click here for complete coverage of Hurricane Florence.

Roofs are especially vulnerable, Rogers said. If a home doesn’t have hurricane clips — metal bands that connect a roof to a home’s walls — it faces the risk of a roof being torn off. Homeowners can check in their attics at places where the slope of the roof meets walls to see if their homes have clips, he said.

Even with clips, roofs are vulnerable to shingles being torn away — exposing a home to flooding from rain.

“The (building) codes for that are marginal,” Rogers said. “The vast majority of insurance claims you’re going to see are roof covering damage and water penetration from the roof.”

The National Hurricane Center said Florence will bring storm surges as high as 12 feet. The storm’s highest waves, some as tall as 60 feet generated farther out at sea, will dissipate somewhat thanks to North Carolina’s shallow shelf, but will still see 10-foot waves at fishing piers and 6-foot waves crashing into buildings along the coast, Rogers said.

“Most buildings will experience a 6-foot wave, but all it takes to knock down a wall is a one-and-a-half-foot wave,” he said. “Any building that gets hit with a wave is highly likely to be destroyed.”

Once Florence makes landfall, it is expected to stall, drenching the region with rain and leaving low-lying and river areas inland exposed to severe flooding.

“Floods kill a lot more people and do a lot more damage than winds,” Rogers said. “Anybody in these areas should be the first and fastest to evacuate.”

After the storm

If you decided to ride out the storm, be prepared for long power outages, no access to drinking water, the inability to see a doctor and a host of other problems, experts said.

“It could be a long time before power is restored,” Collins said. “A case of water and a few cans of beanie-weenies aren’t going to sustain you for more than a week. You’re going to go back to the pioneer days if you don’t have provisions and the ability to cook things.”

Rogers said the flooding will be similar to the extensive inundation experienced during Hurricane Floyd in 1999. He said it will mean a longer time before power crews can repair lines and a delay before water and sewer services can be restored to homes.

“The longer this thing sticks around, the longer we’ll have to wait to start cleaning things up,” he said.

Better construction

A potential bright spot to the storm is that code enforcement, architecture and building construction all improved after major storms of the 1950s and 1960s — including the devastating Hurricane Hazel of 1954, which wiped portions of entire towns in the region clean.

The lessons of the hurricanes of the 1950s, Rogers said, gave way to what we now view as a typical beach home: something high off the ground that we park cars under.

“There was a major shift in architectural choices in foundation design,” he said. “The idea of a beach house is now something elevated 8-feet high on stilts.

“It makes a tremendous difference.”

During Hurricanes Bertha, Fran and Floyd in the 1990s, fewer homes were destroyed because they were better designed to handle a major storm, Rogers said.

Rescue efforts

Exacerbating the storm’s impact is population growth. Since Hurricane Floyd struck in 1999, the three-county Southeastern North Carolina region has seen its population swell from about 274,000 to nearly 429,000.

New Hanover County Commissioners Chairman Woody White said “a whole generation of new Wilmingtonians” have experienced relatively minor tropical storms or hurricanes that caused limited damage compared to what Florence will bring.

“The message is that if you can leave, you need to leave,” he said. “Think of your family first and your property second. People seem get those things mixed up sometimes in these events. They think of their homes and their property when they should be thinking of their family first.”

It’s also more people without personal knowledge of what a major hurricane can do who may be unprepared for the storm and decide to stay home — even if they live in low-lying or flood-prone areas.

“Mandatory means you need to leave,” White said. “For those that want to tempt Mother Nature, I understand but I counsel strongly against that. We all would hate to look back and see lives lost because folks did not heed warnings to seek safe shelter.”

“If you aren’t sure, if you’ve never been through one before or you don’t feel like you’re home is sound enough, you need to leave,” Collins said. “My suggestion is go as far west as you can go.”

White and Collins each had warnings for those who choose to stay.

“Once the storm hits, there will be no emergency response until it leaves; until it passes so that our first-responders in the field are safe,” White said. “If something happens and the storm is in progress and you are having a medical event or you have an emergency or whatever might happen — no one is going to be able to get to you until the storm passes.”

“It puts a huge strain on us and they become statistics,” Collins said. “I do think we’ll have fatalities and we make sure we have enough body bags on hand for it.”

Reporter Tim Buckland can be reached at 910-343-2217 or