The Slatest

Florence Makes Landfall Near Wilmington; 9 Feet of Storm Surge Reported in Places

The Trent River (background) overflows its banks and floods a neighborhood during Hurricane Florence September 13, 2018 in River Bend, North Carolina. Some parts of River Bend and the neighboring New Bern could be flooded with a possible 9-foot storm surge as the Category 2 hurricane approaches the United States.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
On Thursday, The Trent River overflows its banks and floods a neighborhood during Hurricane Florence in River Bend, North Carolina.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Hurricane Florence came ashore as a Category 1 this morning near Wilmington, North Carolina just after 7 a.m.

Heavy flooding from the storm surge hit towns up and down the North Carolina coast overnight, as hundreds of thousands of people lost power. Emerald Isle, a barrier island town northeast of Wilmington, reported water levels 7 feet above normal just before dawn—a level that had been rising slightly even as the tide receded.

In New Bern, a town at the mouth of the Neuse River about 80 miles north of Wilmington, a map of high water calls indicated the storm surge was at or past the 100-year level—nearly 7 feet above normal around high tide early Friday morning, according to a USGS gauge. The National Hurricane Center’s color-coded storm surge prediction map tops out at 9 feet or above. The mayor said 200 water rescues had been performed.

High water calls against a map of New Bern, North Carolina.
High water calls (blue circles) against a map of New Bern, North Carolina.
City of New Bern
High water calls (blue circles) against predicted outlines of a 100-year flood.
High water calls (blue circles) against predicted outlines of a 100-year flood.
City of New Bern

The next high tide comes in the early afternoon, which could bring the worst flooding of the day. Even at low tide, the National Hurricane Center warned this morning, “the water levels in Pamlico Sound”—America’s biggest lagoon, which lies inside the Outer Banks—“remain elevated. These waters are expected to rise as the tides come back in.” (You can follow along with the National Hurricane Center on Twitter or check out the maps on their website.)

Under normal circumstances, this afternoon might be the worst of it. But Florence is not a normal hurricane. Like Harvey, it’s a lumbering beast of a storm that crawled ashore at just 6 mph—one of those slower hurricanes that scientists have been predicting climate change would bring. That means the Atlantic Ocean is likely to stick around in local back yards, blocking roads, inundating houses, trapping residents, and poisoning fields and forests.

And then there’s the rain. As Molly Olmstead wrote in Slate yesterday,

The amount of rain Florence is expected to drop is shocking: One meteorologist put it at 10 trillion gallons over the next week in North Carolina alone. Deadly flash floods—the second leading direct cause of death from hurricanes—are essentially a guaranteed, experts warn.

The current forecast has Florence dropping between 20 and 30 inches of rain on a wide swath around Wilmington, breaking the state rainfall record and possibly the East Coast hurricane record. Some areas could receive as much as 50 inches—approaching the amounts recorded during around Houston during Harvey.

As predicted, the surge is highest at towns like New Bern, on the tributaries of the Pamlico Sound, where the storm surge rushes up estuaries and piles up against high ground. For those places, the worst is yet to come. River towns may get pinched between a surging Atlantic Ocean and swollen rivers with nowhere to drain. A record 24.5-foot surge on the Cape Fear River, for example, isn’t predicted until Tuesday. Further inland, there are many ways in which North Carolina is unprepared to handle what’s coming. Those include: low-lying communities, lax building codes, and a vast network of hog farms that have flooded the region in toxic waste during much smaller storms.