One on One: Hurricane Ian reminded us

Published 4:34 pm Thursday, October 13, 2022

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By D.G. Martin

Hurricane Ian hit us here in North Carolina last week hard enough to get our attention with its heavy rains and winds.

Still, all the news stories about Florida’s damage and struggles got us thinking about the many hurricanes that have disrupted our lives and damaged our property.

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We reach back in our past to names like Hugo, Floyd and Fran. Sometimes our memories get confused.

A new book, “Fifteen Hurricanes That Changed the Carolinas: Powerful Storms, Climate Change, and What We Do Next,” by hurricane expert Jay Barnes can help us remember.

Its chapters are: The Great Carolina Hurricane of 1752, The Great Antigua-Charleston Hurricane of 1804, The Beaufort Hurricane of 1879, The Great Sea Islands Hurricane of 1893, The Great San Ciriaco Hurricane of 1899, The Great Asheville Flood of 1916, The Outer Banks Hurricane (1933), Hazel (1954), Gracie (1959), Donna (1960), Hugo (1989), Hurricane Fran (1996), Floyd (1999), Matthew (2016) and Florence (2018).

Each chapter discusses these named hurricanes and gives backgrounds and comparisons of storms that occurred in the same time periods.

I was most interested in storms during my lifetime, beginning with Hazel in 1954. Barnes writes, “By most accounts, it was the most destructive hurricane in Tar Heel history. In North Carolina nineteen people were killed; 15,000 homes and structures were destroyed; 39,000 structures were damaged; thirty counties had major damage; and the storm brought an estimated $136 million in property losses.”

He writes that Hazel is a “benchmark” in the lives of those who endured it and that “Hazel ranks as one of the most destructive hurricanes to strike the United States in the twentieth century.”

In 1959, five years after Hazel’s epic Category 4 storm, came another high-powered storm, Gracie.

Then only a year later, writes Barnes, “the Outer Banks were struck with the full fury of Donna. High winds, gusting to 120 mph in some locations, ripped away roofs and toppled miles of telephone and power lines.”

Donna was “the first storm to strike with hurricane-force winds in Florida, the Carolinas, and New England within the seventy-five-year records of the Weather Bureau.”

In 1989 came Hugo. It was the “most powerful hurricane to strike the United States in twenty years.”

In Charlotte, the storm destroyed more than 80,000 trees including many that were more than seventy years old. More than 98 percent of the city’s residents lost power.

In 1996 Fran moved “up the Cape Fear, west of Interstate 40, and into the heart of the Triangle region.”

It battered every county in its path, “felling millions of trees and knocking out power over a major portion of the state.”

According to National Weather Service reports, Fran was responsible for at least $5 billion in damages to property, timber, and agriculture in North Carolina.

Barnes asserts that because of Fran’s impact there will be a whole generation of North Carolinians who will tell their children and grandchildren, “Remember Fran.”

Just three years later, Floyd replaced Fran as the state’s preeminent weather event. Without question, Barnes writes, “Floyd’s winds, tides, and tornadoes were dramatic and destructive, particularly along some portions of the coast.”

But the rainfall and flooding across the region caused damage for which Floyd will be remembered.

In the same manner, in 2016 Matthew brought rains that the National Weather Service described as “historic.”

Fifty counties in North Carolina received federal disaster declarations, and 100,000 homes and 19,000 businesses were damaged or destroyed.

Matthew proved to be a model followed by Florence in 2018, but Florence outdid Matthew.

Barnes writes, “Florence was one for the record books, especially in North Carolina. A total of 44,700 buildings were damaged, eight percent of which were completely destroyed. Overall damages in the Tar Heel State topped a whopping $22 billion, more than four times the toll from Matthew, easily making it the costliest hurricane in state history.”

“Fifteen Hurricanes” is a wonderful book to have handy in hurricane season. But it is more than a collection of compelling stories. It is an important guide to preparing for future storms and minimizing their damages.

D.G. Martin, a lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.