Hurricane Florence: what we know

Rising floodwaters in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Rising floodwaters in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Drake
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The fact that Hurricane Florence was downgraded to a tropical storm yesterday (Sept. 14) might have led some to believe that the areas in its path—primarily North and South Carolina—would be spared major damage. Florence, though, is one massive storm, and the real danger isn’t the wind, but the relentless rain and the resulting floodwaters.

“The way a hurricane is classified is based on the wind,” said Jeff Byard, a Federal Emergency Management Agency official, at a briefing this morning (paywall). “Wind can hurt you… but it is the water, it’s the surge, it’s the rain that affects and can kill you more than the wind can in a hurricane.”

National Hurricane Center head Ken Graham noted today (paywall) that some cities have already received 30 inches, “which is absolutely staggering, and we’re not done yet.” His organization predicts Florence will ultimately dump up to 40 inches of rain along the North Carolina coastal areas south of Cape Hatteras, producing “catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding.”

Chris Wamsley of the National Weather Service noted that Florence will likely dump about the same amount of rain as hurricanes Dennis and Floyd did in 1999—but in the span of three days rather than 14.

Not all the dangers posed by the floodwaters are obvious. North Carolina is home to large hog farms, the sewage from which could spread to other areas and contaminate water supplies. Venomous snakes, including cottonmouths and copperheads, could also end up in the floodwaters.

Even before hitting North Carolina’s coast as a Category 1 hurricane yesterday morning, rains from Florence were causing severe flooding in places like New Bern, a particularly hard-hit city in the state where hundreds have been rescued but many are still awaiting help after waters quickly submerged streets.

So far Florence has claimed at least six lives (paywall), including a mother and her 8-month-old child who died when a tree fell on their home in Wilmington, North Carolina. The storm has also cut power to nearly a million customers in the Carolinas.

This morning US president Donald Trump declared a “major disaster” in North Carolina, which will free up federal funds for the state to use as it recovers from the storm. State officials say more than 20,000 people have taken refuge in over 150 shelters.

One of the problems with Florence is that it’s moving slowly, with its bands of rain hitting the same areas again and again. North Carolina governor Roy Cooper called it “an uninvited brute that just won’t leave.” Days of flooding are expected.

According to the National Hurricane Center, the storm will turn northward through the Ohio Valley by Monday, being downgraded to a tropical depression. The Carolinas, though, will be grappling with the destruction it’s causing long after that.