Even though Hurricane Florence’s landfall remained unpredictable Wednesday, experts say a slow or stalled storm could cause disastrous damage to North Carolina’s southern coastline.
If the hurricane slows down and stalls just off the coast for 24 hours, as some predict, it would also pound the beaches through tide shifts.
“Just imagine the storm surge and very large waves on top of it,” said Rob Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.
“Typically you see that happens once, and the storm goes across and leaves. But if the storm just sits there and the tides go up and down and up and down, it’s almost like having a couple of hurricanes hit you.”
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Orrin Pilkey, professor emeritus of geology at Duke University, said renourished beaches are expected to take a big hit. Wrightsville Beach and Ocean Isle recently completed nourishment projects.
“Replenished beaches, these costly beaches that we pump up, are going to disappear much faster than a natural beach,” Pilkey said in an interview Wednesday.
If the storm makes a turn toward South Carolina and Georgia, that may not necessarily mean relief for North Carolina’s barrier islands south of Cape Lookout, particularly Wrightsville Beach, Kure Beach, Carolina Beach, Figure Eight and Topsail islands, Young said.
The most significant storm surge would likely hit the beaches north of Cape Fear, where winds from the hurricane would be blowing toward land, pushing water with it, even if Florence makes a turn to South Carolina.
Some of the highest storm surges will be in the estuaries behind the barrier islands, Young said. Hurricane Florence is likely to produce significant coastal damage, storm surge, inland flooding and wind damage.
“This is an unusually intense storm for the state of North Carolina,” Young said, adding, “North Carolinians often feel like we’ve ridden out a lot of storms before. But this storm has the potential, no matter where you are in Eastern North Carolina, to go right over top of your house, put you right in the eyewall, spawn a few tornadoes and have the whole thing collapse around you.”
Not enough has been learned in the aftermath of past destructive hurricanes, Pilkey said. He cited Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which, in South Carolina led to small beach cottages being replaced by three-story “McMansion” rental homes or condos.
“It turned out to be an urban renewal project,” Pilkey said. “The mom-and-pop buildings were replaced by big buildings and the shoreline was more dangerous than ever before. That has been the pattern. I think the problem is money is driving this. In a way I guess you’d call it greed driving this, all this development in a very, very dangerous place, which is becoming more dangerous because the sea level is rising.”
Pilkey, who has been outspoken about coastal development, added: “We’re going to have to move back, whether we like it or not.”