Hurricane Irma's track looks strikingly similar to Hugo in 1989
When a hurricane threatens, the fear strikes first and hardest along the coast, where beach towns empty out and tourists scramble to escape the storm’s worst.
But veteran storm-watchers know that a big blow can muscle its way all the way to the North Carolina mountains, carrying 70 mph winds and foot-deep rains hundreds of miles away from the ocean.
The state’s worst natural disaster – Hurricane Floyd in 1999 – largely spared the beaches. The catastrophe came days later and far-further inland, where rainfall up to 2 feet high surged over river banks, killing 52 people and causing $6 billion in damage.
The hardest-hit cities – Tarboro, Greenville, Princeville – all took their damage from freshwater.
So meteorologists warn newcomers to the Triangle that being three or four counties west of the ocean will not always provide a buffer.
“A lot of people do think it’s a coastal event,” said Scott Sharp, meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “People who’ve lived here long enough know it can hit the mountains just as easily.”
ABC11 morning meteorologist Don “Big Weather” Schwenneker said storms hit North Carolina in three ways: up the coast, bringing heavy winds and storm surge; up the inland track from South Carolina to the Sandhills, bringing less-intense wind but heavy flooding; and up from the Gulf Coast.
“If one comes up that way and kind of rides up the mountains,” he said, “that is likely to come up and rain like heck.”
For the uninitiated, here is a primer on some past North Carolina storms that took the land route:
In 1989, this storm took an unexpected path to Charlotte, where it knocked windows out of skyscrapers and toppled nearly 5,000 trees. The city filled with blue flashes as transformers blew out, and though nobody died in Mecklenburg County, it took eight months to clear downed trees from the streets.
In 1996, Hurricane Fran cut a path of destruction from the coast to Wake County, where residents still recall shivering all night through howling winds. It killed 37 people, 24 in North Carolina, blocking roads statewide under enormous oaks and reminding people that deadly storm force could travel 200 miles inland.
Flooding rose so high across Eastern North Carolina that churches in Princeville were submerged up to their steeples. The ground was already wet from an earlier storm, and up to 2 feet of rain from Floyd sunk the state for weeks.
Hurricane Ivan traveled from the Gulf in 2004 and pushed deep into the mountains, far enough west that it struck tiny Peeks Creek a few miles from the Georgia border. Nearly a foot of rain fell on already wet ground and triggered a landslide that carved off part of Fishhawk Mountain, smashed 15 homes and killed four people.