Historic Hurricanes in North Carolina

Flooding in New Bern, NC caused by Hurricane Matthew

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For the Atlantic coast of the U.S., hurricane season runs from the beginning of June to the end of November. North Carolina is certainly no stranger to hurricanes, taking the brunt of many a storm over the years. From 1851 to 2018, North Carolina has been directly hit by more than 83 tropical storms and hurricanes, 12 of which could be considered major, meaning they were at least a Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale. Only one, Hurricane Hazel in 1954, was a Category 4. A Category 5 hurricane has never hit North Carolina directly, but experts say it's certainly possible.

Predictions for Hurricanes in 2019

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expects the 2019 hurricane season to be about average, with a 40 percent chance we'll see normal numbers of storms, a 30 percent chance we'll see a slightly busier season, and a 30 percent chance we'll see a slightly slower season. Overall, NOAA expects there to be four to eight hurricanes this season, two to four of which will be major storms.

Early Hurricanes in North Carolina

Since North Carolina's days as a colony—well before the advent of modern meteorology and hurricane science—its residents have tracked numerous major storms to hit the coast. Thanks to detailed record-keeping by inhabitants, we've got descriptions of many of the hurricanes to hit North Carolina over its formative two centuries.

  • 1752: In late September, a hurricane ravaged the North Carolina coast in Onslow County, just north of Wilmington. The courthouse was destroyed, along with all public records, as well as many crops and livestock. "At 9 o'clock the flood came rolling in with great impetuosity, and in a short time the tide rose 10 feet above the high water mark of the highest tide," said an eyewitness.
  • 1769: A hurricane struck the North Carolina Outer Banks in September. The colonial capital of the time, New Bern, was almost completely destroyed.
  • 1788: A hurricane made landfall on the Outer Banks and moved into Virginia. This storm was so notable that George Washington wrote a detailed account in his diary, causing the storm to be referred to as "George Washington's storm." The damage was severe at his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia.
  • 1825: One of the earliest-in-the-season hurricanes to ever hit the state (early June), this storm brought incredibly damaging winds onshore.
  • 1876: What became known as the "Centennial Gale" moved through North Carolina in September, bringing heavy flooding to the coast.
  • 1878: A powerful storm known as the "Great October Gale" roared into the Outer Banks in October. Winds of over 100 miles an hour were recorded at Cape Lookout, near Wilmington.
  • 1879: A hurricane in August of this year was among the worst of the century. Devices for measuring wind speed were shattered and destroyed from the sheer force of winds at Cape Hatteras and Kitty Hawk. This storm was so intense that the state's governor, Thomas Jarvis, was forced to flee his hotel in Beaufort, which later collapsed.
  • 1896: A September hurricane made landfall far south of the Carolinas, in the northern portion of Florida. The storm remained unusually strong, though, and damage from 100-mile-an-hour winds was reported as far north as Raleigh and Chapel Hill.
  • 1899: The "San Ciriaco Hurricane" would make its way through the Outer Banks in August of this year, flooding portions of the Hatteras community and other barrier islands. Diamond City, the state's lone whaling community, was destroyed in the storm and would be abandoned. Over 20 deaths were reported.

    Hurricanes in the 1900s

    The 20th century brought about great changes in the field of meteorology, including the invention of the hurricane hunters program—the concept of flying planes into hurricanes to study them—in 1943, as well as the creation of the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale (now the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale) in 1971. During this century, numerous major hurricanes devastated the state.

    • 1933: After over 30 years of relative quiet, two strong storms struck the coast of North Carolina, one in August and another in September. During the second storm, more than 13 inches of rain dumped on the Outer Banks, and wind gusts of over 100 miles per hour were reported across the region. Twenty-one deaths were reported.
    • 1940: In August, a hurricane snaked through the region after making landfall in South Carolina. Widespread flooding occurred in the western part of North Carolina.
    • 1944: In September, "The Great Atlantic Hurricane" came ashore on the Outer Banks, near Cape Hatteras. Two Coast Guard ships, the Bedloe and the Jackson, were destroyed, resulting in the death of nearly 50 crew members.
    • 1954: In October, one of the century's most intense storms, Hurricane Hazel, would sweep inland, near the state's border with South Carolina. The storm coincided with the highest tide of the year. Many beach communities were devastated. Brunswick County saw the worst devastation, where most homes were either completely destroyed or damaged beyond inhabitation. In the town of Long Beach, only five of 357 buildings were left standing. Approximately 80 percent of oceanfront homes in Myrtle Beach were destroyed. According to an official report from the Weather Bureau in Raleigh, "all traces of civilization on the immediate waterfront between the state line and Cape Fear were practically annihilated." The NOAA report on the hurricanes of the year stated that "every pier in a distance of 170 miles of coastline was demolished." Nineteen fatalities were reported in North Carolina, and several hundred more were injured. Some 15,000 homes were destroyed, and close to 40,000 damaged. Damages in the state amounted to $163 million, with beach property accounting for $61 million of damage.
    • 1955: Three hurricanes—Connie, Diane, and Ione—would make landfall in a six week period, causing record flooding on the coastal regions. The Outer Banks town of Maysville reported close to 50 inches of rain combined from these three storms.
    • 1960: Hurricane Donna would hit Cape Fear as a Category 3 storm and remain a hurricane throughout its journey through the state. Sustained winds of almost 120 miles per hour were reported at Cape Fear.
    • 1972: A hurricane named Agnes hit Florida Gulf Coast before moving through the southern states. Torrential rain poured on the western half of North Carolina, causing extensive flooding. Two deaths were reported.
    • 1989: Another of the most intense storms in recent history, Hurricane Hugo made landfall in Charleston, South Carolina, in September. The storm retained an incredible amount of strength, so it traveled much farther inland than normal. Since the storm was right on the cusp of Category 1 status when it came through the region, there has been debate as to whether or not the storm qualified as a hurricane. As far as an "official" answer, as the eye of the storm passed over the center city of Charlotte, the storm did qualify as a hurricane (sustained winds of over 80 miles an hour and gusts of over 100). Thousands of trees were felled, and power was out for weeks. Hugo remains one of the most devastating hurricanes to hit the Carolina coast, and certainly the most devastating to Charlotte. Although many people believe the mascot of the NBA's Charlotte Hornets, Hugo, would take his name from this storm, it did not; Hugo the Hornet was created one year before the storm hit Charlotte.
    • 1993: Hurricane Emily was a Category 3 storm when it approached the Outer Banks. The storm was headed inland, but turned out to sea at the last moment, brushing the coast and not making direct landfall. Still, close to 500 homes were destroyed in Hatteras, and power was cut to the island when officials feared numerous downed power lines would start fires. Flooding left a quarter of the population homeless. Two deaths were reported, and both were swimmers at Nags Head.
    • 1996: Hurricane Bertha struck North Carolina in July, and Hurricane Fran in September. It was the first time since the mid-'50s that North Carolina had experienced two hurricane landfalls in one hurricane season. Bertha destroyed several fishing piers and marinas in the Wrightsville Beach area. Due to the devastation from Bertha, the police station in Topsoil Beach had to be housed in a double-wide trailer. Flooding from Hurricane Fran would later carry the temporary police station away. The Kure Beach pier was destroyed, and even historic buildings far inland at North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina were damaged. At least six people were killed in the storm, most of these from auto accidents. The Topsoil Beach area was hit the worst by Fran, with over 500 million dollars of damage reported, and 90 percent of structures damaged.
    • 1999: Hurricane Dennis reached the coast in late August, followed by Hurricane Floyd in the middle of September, followed by Irene four weeks later. Even though Floyd made landfall just west of Cape Hatteras, it continued inland and dropped close to 20 inches of rain in many parts of the state, causing record flooding and billions of dollars in damage. Thirty-five North Carolina deaths would be reported from Floyd, mostly as a result of flooding.

    Hurricanes in the 2000s

    A number of major hurricanes impacted North Carolina in the first few decades of the 21st century, at the cost of many lives and billions of dollars in damage.

    • 2003: On September 18, Hurricane Isabel crashed into Ocracoke Island and continued through the northern half of the state. Widespread flooding caused many power outages. Damage was heaviest in Dare County, where flooding and winds damaged thousands of homes. The storm actually washed away a portion of Hatteras Island, forming Isabel Inlet. North Carolina Highway 12 was destroyed by the inlet forming, and the town of Hatteras was cut off from the rest of the island. A bridge or ferry system was considered, but ultimately, officials pumped in sand to fill the gap. Three North Carolina fatalities would be reported as a result of the storm.
    • 2011: Hurricane Irene made landfall in Cape Lookout on the Outer Banks with sustained winds of 85 miles per hour (Category 1). It caused seven deaths in the state before making landfall again in New Jersey and New York, where more damage and deaths occurred.
    • 2014: When Hurricane Arthur made landfall in the Outer Banks late at night on July 3, it was a Category 2 storm. Fortunately, no one died directly as a result of this hurricane.
    • 2016: At its peak, Hurricane Matthew was a Category 5 storm, but when it made landfall near McClellanville, South Carolina, on October 8, it was a Category 1 storm. But the storm hugged the North Carolina coast, dumping more than a foot of rain on land already inundated by the storm surge. Robeson County was one of the hardest areas hit. More than two dozen people died in North Carolina alone.
    • 2018: On September 17, Hurricane Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, as a Category 1 storm. However, the storm stalled and caused catastrophic flooding in the region, with over 30 inches of rain reported in some areas. Wilmington was completely surrounded by floodwaters and cut off from the mainland at one point during the storm. It was estimated that the storm did $17 billion of damage in North Carolina alone. It also caused 15 direct deaths and 25 indirect ones.
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