AP Explains: Why North Carolina is vulnerable to hurricanes

FILE – In this May 15, 2007, file photo, summer and rental properties sitting vulnerable next to the ocean, in Buxton, N. C. Hurricane Florence has become a reminder of how vulnerable North Carolina’s coast. Experts said Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, that the storm could be the most destructive on record. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

As Hurricane Florence churns to the east coast, with catastrophic power, the storm has become a reminder of how vulnerable North Carolina’s coast.

Large amounts of new development are now on the shifting sands of the barrier islands there, in the midst of the rising waters of climate change.

With the exception of a few short pieces of the state is flanked almost entirely by those islands, which are sensitive to flooding and storm surges. Climate change and development are only worse. North Carolina’s governor has ordered a mandatory evacuation for the barrier islands.

Here is a look at why North Carolina could be hit especially hard, and how climate change and development have made living on the coast even more risky.


North Carolina’s coast is almost entirely made of narrow, low-lying barrier islands. And a modern wave of tourist-driven development, including acres of expensive holiday houses, built in places where it probably doesn’t.

The Outer Banks is located along the northern half of the coast, and sticking out into the Atlantic ocean. But barrier islands also flank much of the lower part of the state. These islands are particularly vulnerable to storm surges to wash over you from both sides.

Development makes the problem worse as communities fill the coasts eroded or exhausted by storms. If the sea level rises, barrier islands usually move in the direction of the mainland over long periods of time. Keep them in their places by artificial means only makes them more vulnerable.

“You look out and you think that the coastline is a fixed line in the sand, and it’s not,” said Laura J. Moore, a professor of geology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“The sea level rises and the coastline needs to move with it,” she said. “By preventing the islands move eventually leads to the curtailment and the loss of the islands.”


Florence may be the most destructive storm to hit North Carolina’s coast since the tracking began, said Robert S. Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, a joint venture between the Duke University and Western Carolina University.

The storm surge could exceed the one caused by Hurricane Hazel in 1954, which was 18 metres above median sea level as a single, Sunset Beach near the South Carolina border.

On the Outer Banks, new inlets may form while others are broadened and deepened. The storm will probably blow water in the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds. If Florence churns out the wind could blow that water back over the Outer Banks.

“We will once again kiss Highway 12 goodbye,” Orrin H. Pilkey, a professor emeritus of geology at Duke University, said of the Outer Banks’ main road.

Much of the mainland in the east of North Carolina is probably also the flood of heavy rainfall because the terrain is so flat and the water table is so high.

But the damage probably won’t be as catastrophic as Hurricane Sandy was when it hit New Jersey or other storms that affected much more developed areas in places like Florida.

“It is not a worst-case scenario for the property damage,” said the Young. “Many of these communities have tried to restrict development. But there is still a lot of value of the property. The damage would be catastrophic on a North Carolina scale.”


Climate change is making a bad situation even worse.

Warmer waters increase the size and intensity of hurricanes. The storm of the season is longer. If the sea level rises, coastlines will be increasingly vulnerable. Water tables are higher, making the coastal areas more susceptible to flooding.

“A storm such as this would be extremely destructive 100 years ago, even before we had that century of the rise of the sea level,” Young said. “And it will be a significantly greater 100 years from now, depending on what the sea-level rise.”

Pilkey, of Duke University, said he hopes Florence offers people more motivation to draw back from North Carolina’s barrier islands.

“Sooner or later we must be off,” he said. “We retreat now, in a planned way. Or we can retreat later, in response to a disaster like that to happen.”

For the latest news on Hurricane Florence, visit .

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