Hurricanes are powerful tropical weather systems with clear circulation and winds of 74 miles per hour or higher. When hurricanes move onto land, they sweep the ocean inland. They can cause tornadoes and bring heavy rains and floods. Hurricanes are grouped into categories based on the wind speed. The stronger the wind speed, the higher the category, but most hurricane damage is caused by flooding, not winds.
North Carolina’s coast is one of the nation’s most vulnerable areas to a direct hurricane strike because its coastline extends out into the ocean. All areas of the state – from coastal and sound counties to the mountains – have been impacted by hurricanes in the past 20 years. Heavy winds, tornadoes, strong thunderstorms, flooding, storm surge and landslides can all be caused by hurricanes causing tragic damage.
The Atlantic Hurricane Season runs from June 1 to November 30 with the peak season from mid-August to late October.
Tropical Depression - contains winds up to 39 miles per hour (mph).
Tropical Storm - 39 - 73 mph winds
Category 1 – 74 to 95 mph winds
Category 2 – 96 to 110 mph winds
Category 3 – 111 to 129 mph winds
Category 4 – 130 to 156 mph winds.
Category 5 – winds 157 mph or greater.
To get ready for a hurricane:
- Build an emergency kit.
- Make a family communications plan.
- Know you’re the routes you need to leave your home (evacuation routes). Locate your local emergency shelters.
- Closely watch/listen to the weather reports. Listening every hour as the storm nears.
- Put fuel in all vehicles and withdraw some cash from the bank. Gas stations and ATMs may be closed after a hurricane.
- If authorities ask you to leave, do so quickly.
- If you leave (evacuate), be alert to flooded or washed-out roads. Just a few inches of water can float a car. Think: Turn Around, Don't Drown.
- Keep a photo I.D. that shows your home address. You will need it when asking police if it is okay for you to re-enter your area or home.
- Secure your property.
- Bring inside all outdoor furniture, decorations, garbage cans and anything else that is not tied down.
- Cover windows with permanent storm shutters or board up windows with 5/8” plywood, cut and ready to install. Tape does not stop windows from breaking.
- Put in straps or extra clips to securely fasten your roof to the frame structure. This will lower roof damage.
- Trim trees and shrubs around your home, so they are more wind resistant.
- Clear clogged rain gutters and downspouts.
- Reinforce garage doors. If wind enters a garage it can cause dangerous and expensive structural damage.
Know the terms:
- Hurricane Watch – hurricane conditions (sustained winds greater than 74 mph) are possible. Watches are usually issued 48 hours before the beginning of tropical-storm-force-winds.
- Hurricane Warning – hurricane conditions (sustained winds greater than 74 mph) are expected. Warnings are usually issued 36 hours before the beginning of tropical-storm-force-winds.
- Tropical Storm Warning – tropical storm conditions (sustained winds of 39 to 73 mph) are possible within 36 hours.
If a hurricane is likely in your area, you should:
- Listen to the radio or television for information.
- Secure your home, close storm shutters and secure outdoor objects or bring them indoors.
- Turn off gas, water and power if you are told to do so. Otherwise, turn the refrigerator thermostat to its coldest setting and keep its doors closed.
- Turn off propane tanks.
- Try not to use the phone, except for serious emergencies.
- Moor your boat if time permits.
- Make sure you have a supply of water for sanitary purpose such as cleaning and flushing toilets. Fill the bathtub and other larger containers with water.
- Find out how to keep food safe during and after an emergency.
Leave your home or area if you are:
- Told to do so by local police.
- In a mobile home or temporary structure. Such structures are particularly dangerous during high wind events no matter how well fastened to the ground.
- In a high-rise building because hurricane winds are stronger at higher levels.
- On the coast, in a floodplain, near a river or on an island waterway.
If you are unable to leave, go to the safest room in your house.
- Stay indoors during the hurricane. Stay away from windows and glass doors.
- Close all interior doors – secure and brace external doors.
- Keep curtains and blinds closed.
- Do not be fooled if there is a lull; it could be the eye of the storm – winds will pick up again.
- Take shelter in a small interior room, closet or hallway on the lowest level.
- Lie on the floor under a table or another sturdy object.
After a hurricane leaves your area:
- Stay tuned to local radio, television or NOAA Weather Radio for the latest news.
- Stay alert for extra rainfall and following flooding even after the storm has ended.
- Drive only if needed. Stay away from flooded roads and washed-out bridges. Stay off the streets. If you must go out, look for fallen objects, downed electrical wires, and weakened bridges, roads and sidewalks.
- Keep away from loose or dangling power lines. Report them as quickly as you can to the power company.
- If you need to reach your family, use your family communications plan. Remember that a text message will often go through when you cannot get a phone call to connect.
- If you cannot return home and need shelter, plan to stay with family or friends or at a hotel. If you have no other options, find a public shelter location.
- Return home only when officials say it is safe.
- Walk carefully around the outside your home and check for loose power lines, gas leaks and structural damage before entering. Stay out of any building if you smell gas, if floodwaters remain around the building or your home was damaged by fire.
- Check your home for damage. Take pictures of damage, both of the building and its contents, for insurance purposes. If you have any doubts about safety, have your home check out by a trained building inspector or structural engineer before entering.
- Use battery-powered flashlights in the dark. Do NOT use candles. Note: The flashlight should be turned on outside before entering because the battery may make a spark that could cause leaking gas to catch on fire, if present.
- Many longer-term housing choices may be open to help those whose homes have been badly damaged or destroyed. Check this website or listen to local media after a hurricane to learn what choices may be open to you.
- Watch your pets closely and keep them under your direct control. Watch out for wild animals, especially poisonous snakes. Use a stick to poke through debris.
- Do not drink or make food with tap water until you are sure it’s not dirty.
- Check refrigerated food for spoilage. If in doubt, throw it out.
- Wear protective clothing and be cautious when cleaning up to not get hurt.
- Use the telephone only for emergency calls.
- NEVER use a generator inside homes, garages, crawlspaces, sheds, or other enclosed areas, even when using fans or opening doors and windows for airing. Deadly levels of carbon monoxide can quickly build up in these areas and can stay around for hours, even after the generator has shut off.
- Visit the N.C. Division of Public Health for more information, facts and figures, prevention guidance, prevention posters, infographics and factsheets on preventing Carbon Monoxide poisoning.
North Carolina is especially at risk of a hurricane hitting the state. Below is a list of tropical storms and hurricanes that have caused problems in the state in recent years.
Hurricane Matthew – October 8
Hurricane Matthew hugged the NC coast after making landfall in South Carolina, causing torrential rains. Seventeen counties set rainfall records, with up to 18 inches in some areas. Matthew’s flooding hit Robeson, Edgecombe, Cumberland and Wayne counties especially hard. Fifty counties received a federal disaster declaration. Thirty-one people were killed, making Matthew the deadliest hurricane in North Carolina since Floyd in 1999. Damage estimates topped $4.8 billion.
Tropical Storm Julia – September 22
The remnants of Julia dumped 10 to 17 inches of rain across northeastern North Carolina within a 72-hour period. Swift water rescue teams pulled 130+ people from flooded houses and cars.
Tropical Storm Hermine – September 6
Hermine dumped between 5 and 10 inches of rain across much of eastern North Carolina and caused nearly 30,000 power outages, but otherwise left the state fairly unscathed.
Hurricane Joaquin – September 25-October 5
Several back-to-back low pressure systems combined with a coastal front and a hurricane dumping 5 to 20 inches of rain across many coastal counties. The storm caused an estimated $31 million in damages to roads and infrastructure including costs of emergency protective measures and debris removal.
Hurricane Irene – August 27
Hurricane Irene made landfall near Cape Lookout as a Category 1. It brought two to four feet of storm surge along parts of the Outer Banks and up to 15 feet along parts of the Pamlico Sound. Irene caused seven deaths and prompted more than 10,000 people to seek shelter in one of 86 shelters.
Hurricane Earl - September 3
Tropical Storm Nicole – September 27 – October 1
Nicole dumped between five and 24 inches of rain on eastern North Carolina over many days. This caused major flooding along the Cashie, Cape Fear, Lumber, Trent, Neuse and Dan rivers. Eight deaths were linked to Nicole. It damaged hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses.
Tropical Storm Fay - August 23
Tropical Storm Hanna - September 6
Tropical Storm Ernesto - August 31
Hurricane Ophelia - September 14 -15
Hurricane Ophelia was a slow-moving Category 1 storm. It dropped more than 10 inches of rain on the coast. Oak Island recorded the highest rainfall with 17.5 inches. Storm surges of 7-12 feet were listed in low-lying inlets of Pamlico Sound. Damage was worst in Salter Path and along the Outer Banks. Ophelia caused $70 million worth of damage and beach erosion along the North Carolina coast. At the storm's peak, more than 240,000 users were without power. One indirect death was reported because of a traffic accident.
Tropical Storm Tammy - October 8-9
Tropical Storm Tammy made landfall in Florida before traveling north through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and into New England. The remains of Tammy dumped 13.8 inches of rain on Wilmington over five days.
Hurricane Alex - August 3
A Category 2 hurricane, Alex never made landfall. Its center came within 10 miles of the North Carolina coast. Alex caused about $7.5 million in damages. Most of that damage was to houses along the Outer Banks and flooded cars. The Outer Banks saw the strongest impacts. A 6-foot storm surge flooded the sound side of Buxton and Ocracoke Village. More than 5 inches of rain was recorded along the coast, while Ocracoke received 7.5 inches. Water levels along the Outer Banks were two to four feet above normal.
Tropical Storm Bonnie - August 13
Bonnie made landfall as a tropical storm in Florida on August 12. Then, it traveled north entering North Carolina near Charlotte impacting the Piedmont region of the state. The storm caused moderate damage. A tornado caused by Bonnie struck Pender County. The tornado caused three deaths, destroyed 17 homes, damaged 59 houses and caused $1.27 million in damage.
Tropical Storm Charley - August 14th
Charley first made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane in Florida. Then, it traveled back out to sea before making a second landfall as a Category 1 near North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. For North Carolina, Charley caused two to three feet of storm surge. It dumped four to six inches of rain, causing minor beach erosion along the coast and flooding in seven counties. Damage was greatest in Brunswick County. Charley caused crop damage, destroyed 40 houses and damaged 2,231 others. Strong winds made trees and power lines fall, leaving 65,000 people without power. The hurricane caused five weak tornadoes across the state, including one in Nags Head that damaged 20 structures. In North Carolina, damages from Charley totaled $25 million.
Tropical Depression Frances - September 8
Frances made landfall as a Category 2 on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, then crossed the state and came out near Tampa as a tropical storm. As Frances headed inland, the storm weakened to a tropical depression causing heavy rainfall over the southern United States. Tropical Depression Francis dropped as much as 15 inches of rain in the North Carolina mountains. Thirty-four North Carolina counties were declared federal disaster areas, allowing residents to get federal disaster assistance.
Tropical Storm Ivan - September 16
Hurricane Ivan struck Alabama as a Category 3 hurricane and continued inland as a tropical storm. It soaked the North Carolina mountains. It caused landslides and severe flooding. More than 18 inches of rain was dumped on Linville Falls. Many streams and rivers reached well above flood stage causing many road closings. The Blue Ridge Parkway and Interstate 40 through the Pigeon River gorge, had major damage. Twenty-nine western North Carolina counties were declared federal disaster areas from Tropical Storm Ivan. Ivan was blamed for eight deaths in North Carolina. In Macon County, a landslide destroyed 15 homes and killed three people in the Peeks Creek community. Downtown Canton was crippled when the Pigeon River overflowed its banks. In nearby Clyde, more than 170 homes were damaged.
Tropical Storm Jeanne - September 27
Jeanne was a Category 3 hurricane when it came ashore in Florida on Sept. 25. By the time it reached North Carolina, Jeanne was downgraded to a tropical depression and brought heavy rain to the Piedmont section of the state.
Hurricane Isabel - September 18
Hurricane Isabel came ashore near Drum Inlet along the Outer Banks. It caused flooding and very bad damage in eastern and central North Carolina. More than 16,000 people searched for safe haven in 127 shelters. More than 700,000 were left without power. Qualified residents and businesses in 47 counties got more than $155 million in state/federal disaster aid.
Hurricane Dennis - August 30 - September 4
Dubbed Dennis the Mennis, the Category 2 storm threatened southeastern North Carolina for many days, before heading out to sea, looping back around and coming ashore. Dennis made landfall just below hurricane strength at Cape Lookout on Sept. 4. The storm then moved through eastern and central North Carolina. It dumped 10 to 15 inches of rain, causing a lot of flooding in southeastern North Carolina. Because the storm had stayed off the coast for many days, there was a lot of beach erosion and damage to coastal highways. Residents of Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands were stranded for many days due to damage to Highway 12. Two traffic deaths were credited to the storm.
Hurricane Floyd - September 16
Tropical storm-force winds spanning 580 miles made Floyd one of the largest Atlantic hurricanes of its intensity ever recorded. Floyd's loss of strength from a Category 5 to a Category 2 by the time it made landfall at Cape Fear lowered the amount of wind-related damages. The 10-foot storm surge and torrential rains – combined with the 15 inches of rain left by Dennis two weeks before – caused record floods for more than half the state. Wilmington got 19 inches of rain.
For many areas, flooding occurred slowly as rain added up in rivers and moved downstream. Some areas did not reach peak flood levels until weeks after the storm. As much as 30 percent of Rocky Mount was underwater for many days. Much of downtown Tarboro also was under many feet of water. Princeville was largely destroyed when the Tar River poured over the town's levee, covering the town with more than 20 feet of floodwater for 10 days. Greenville suffered very heavy flooding as did Washington. In fact, widespread flooding over a number of weeks in nearly every river basin in the eastern part of the state topped 500-year flood levels.
More than 7,000 homes were destroyed, 17,000 were uninhabitable, and 56,000 were damaged. The N.C. Department of Transportation reported that 1,400 state or interstate roads were blocked. Thousands of residents in more than a dozen counties were trapped in their homes by rising water. Many awaited rescue from rooftops or trees.
In all, Hurricane Floyd caused 52 deaths and $5.5 billion in damage. More than 1.5 million customers were without power.
Hurricane Irene - October 17-18
Hurricane Irene skirted the North Carolina coast, bringing up to 12 inches of rain in eastern North Carolina. This caused more flooding because of the problems from Hurricane Floyd.
Hurricane Bonnie - August 26-27
Hurricane Bonnie made landfall near Wilmington as a Category 3. It overwhelmed the city with 20 inches of rain and maximum sustained winds of 110 miles per hour. Bonnie moved slowly north-northwest causing many tornadoes, then was downgraded to a tropical storm. As the storm turned northeast, it regained hurricane strength then exited the state over Currituck County. The hurricane caused power outages and flooding that were worsened 12 days later as the remnants of Tropical Storm Earl deposited another four inches of rain in the Wilmington area. One death was credited to the storm. It caused an about $480 million in damages.
Tropical Depression Earl - September 4
Tropical Depression Earl moved rapidly through the state and produced tornadoes.
Tropical Storm Arthur - June 20
Arthur reached tropical storm strength, making landfall near Cape Lookout. Arthur turned to the east and back out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Hurricane Bertha - July 12
Hurricane Bertha made landfall near Wrightsville Beach as a Category 2 storm, then weakened to a tropical storm as it travelled up the east coast. Bertha was the first July hurricane to hit the state since 1908. Eight people were killed. There was $270 million in damages. Bertha caused flooding, beach erosion, falling trees, and major damage to roofs and piers. North Topsail Beach was hit hardest by the storm surge. The highest storm surge – between five and eight feet – was in Pender and Onslow counties.
Hurricane Fran - Sept. 5-6
With a 25-mile wide eye, Fran made landfall as a Category 3 storm near Bald Head Island in Brunswick County. Fran was downgraded to a tropical storm just before it reached Raleigh, packing winds of 79 miles per hour. It dropped nearly nine inches of rain on the capitol city. Major wind damage and flooding were reported along the North Carolina coast. Major damage was reported inland through Raleigh. Damages topped $5 billion. Thirty-seven people died from Fran.
Hurricane Emily - August 31
Hurricane Emily came ashore as a Category 3 hurricane, but the 30-mile-wide eye stayed just offshore of Cape Hatteras. Damage estimates were nearly $13 million. No lives were lost.
Tropical Storm Hugo - September 22
Hurricane Hugo made landfall just north of Charleston, S.C. as a Category 4 storm. From there, Hugo moved northward to Charlotte, where sustained winds were reported at 69 miles per hour with gusts up to 99 miles per hour. Hugo caused seven deaths. Damage was reported in 29 counties. Charlotte alone lost more than 80,000 trees – many of which were large oaks more than 70 years old. It took two weeks to fully restore power in Charlotte. Damage from Hugo cost North Carolina about $1 billion.
Hurricane Hazel - October 15
Hurricane Hazel made landfall at the South Carolina/North Carolina border as a Category 4 storm. Hazel caused 19 deaths in North Carolina. It also caused an about $136 million in damage. It was thought to be the most destructive hurricane to hit North Carolina until Floyd in 1999. With an 18-foot storm surge recorded in Calabash, Hurricane Hazel caused major damage to the beaches of New Hanover and Brunswick counties. About 15,000 homes and structures were ruined and 39,000 structures damaged. The towns of Southport and Wrightsville Beach were wrecked. Hazel brought a record rainfall. Her path of destruction spread over 2,000 miles. Hazel passed over Raleigh and up through Virginia, northward. It weakened below hurricane strength after about 18 hours on land, miles north of Toronto, Canada.