What if it had happened here? Experts say flooding would have been crippling

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Severe flooding from the Northeast Cape Fear River due to the torrential rains from Hurricane Florence is seen in Burgaw, Wednesday.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Numbers tell the story of how Hurricane Florence devastated southeastern North Carolina: more than a foot of rain, 10-foot storm surges, billions in property damage, and more than 30 deaths.

Northeastern North Carolina would have fared no better had the storm come here instead.

In a series of interviews last week, emergency officials and weather and flooding experts detailed how they believe the Albemarle would have fared had Hurricane Florence come ashore on the Outer Banks instead of near Wilmington to the southeast.

It's an important thought experiment: the devastating storm was expected to hit the Albemarle more directly until forecasters confirmed it was veering south to slam a region more southeast near the North-South Carolina border.

Florence also isn't a fluke. It comes as flooding seems to be intensifying in both the Albemarle and in Tidewater Virginia, prompting officials to urge people further prepare for storms and even rethink how they build at the water's edge.

Jeff Orrock is the meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service office in Wakefield, Va. In the lead-up to Florence, he said meteorologists agreed Florence would hit somewhere between Cape Hatteras and Charleston, South Carolina, but it wasn't until a few days before landfall they determined high-pressure systems would push Florence toward the southern part of “boundaries of impact.”

“It ran into a wall, essentially,” he said.

Had Florence hit the Albemarle, it would have caused extreme water damage much like that in southeastern North Carolina, he agreed. That means waters could have risen eight to 10 feet, counting rainfall and storm surge, he added.

“It's nothing we've ever experienced,” Orrock said. “The best thing to do (for a storm like Florence) is to just get out of the way.”

Greg Johnson is a stormwater engineer who works with both Pasquotank County and the city of Virginia Beach. He agreed Florence would've taken a great toll on the region.

“When it comes to Florence, I don't know how you prepare,” he said, adding, “If Pasquotank County/Elizabeth City gets hit by a even a Category 3 (storm), it will be ugly.”

Pasquotank-Camden Emergency Management Coordinator Christy Saunders reiterated she and emergency officials worked hard, and well, to prepare for Florence. Before the forecast for the region improved, they encouraged evacuations, opened an emergency shelter and had vital personnel poised for a major disaster.

But first responders can’t make water go away, she noted.

“Everyone's doing everything they can, but you can't prepare for 20-plus inches of rain,” she said, noting 2016's Hurricane Matthew dropped only about 13 inches of rain. Pasquotank, Elizabeth City and Camden could've looked much like the Wilmington does now, she said.

Currituck Emergency Management Director Mary Beth Newns also said that, had Florence hit this region, “it would've been exactly what you're seeing south of us.” A large storm hitting near Currituck would have done immense damage to the county’s beaches, she said.

The officials interviewed for this story also agreed with Orrock that waters could have risen as much as 10 feet across the Albemarle.

What would that have looked like? Pasquotank Planning Director Shelley Cox explained that can be modeled through the state's Flood Inundation Mapping and Alert Network. Based on water gauge data and stormwater modeling, it can estimate how flooding would affect coastal communities. Scenarios can be modeled at fiman.nc.gov.

The tool shows that, at just 8 feet of water, most of Elizabeth City would see some flooding, with standing water on parts of major roads and floodwaters as high as 5 feet for some downtown homes and buildings.

Florence also hit as long-term trends suggest coastal communities are becoming more vulnerable to flooding, in part due to sea-level rise and some intensifying of storms.

There are perceptions that what meteorologists or disaster officials call “100-year” or “500-year” flooding is actually more common, Orrock said. He said others are researching whether benchmarks for 100-year, 500-year and other extreme flooding need to be redefined, but he believes there does seem to be an uptick in extreme rain events along the East Coast.

Johnson was more blunt. Sea-level rise and other factors are making the Albemarle and Tidewater more vulnerable to flooding in years to come, he said.

“You've heard people say, 'this is the worst I've ever seen,' and they're right,” Johnson said. “And it's going to get worse.”

Johnson said that Virginia Beach, Norfolk and other cities in coastal areas or along waterways have been studying sea-level rise and future flooding for years. He said many of factors affecting Virginia Beach also apply to the Albemarle, noting shared water bodies as one similarity. Consultants for the Virginia cities are expecting 1.5 to 3 feet of sea-level rise in coming decades, prompting them to work now on new standards and recommendations for development in low-lying areas, he said.

Johnson also said that FEMA's new flood maps, which reduce how many properties in Pasquotank are in flood zones, didn't consider all the data they should have. He also said federal data used to define 100-year, 500-year and extreme weather is based on data more than a decade old.

If Florence is a harbinger of worse storms to come, it begs the question: should public officials start encouraging people to build farther away from the water, even though that could stymie economic growth and reshape communities?

Johnson said no — at least for the next several decades. Local officials are working to set safe but reasonable standards for elevating and otherwise preparing developments for flooding, he said.

Elizabeth City City Manager Rich Olson also agreed that Florence would've done major damage to the city and its infrastructure. However, he said the biggest thing the city can encourage is properly elevating properties.

Saunders similarly said that, while she's not a builder, she encourages people to err on the side of caution and build new homes higher than the minimum regulations require. For example, if they need a foundation that's four cinder blocks high, they should try to go to five, she said.

Currituck’s Newns said beaches are becoming more populated over the years, and that’s growing the estimated cost damages from storms. Rather than discourage that, she urged citizens to follow emergency officials' directions and advice, even when it's inconvenient. That includes evacuating; people living on sand bars should not ride out storms and risk getting cut off from first responders, she said.

Pasquotank’s Cox — who's shared Johnson's concerns about FEMA's flood maps giving people false reassurance — also stressed that homeowners need to buy flood insurance, whether it's required or not.

One benefit of the FEMA maps removing people from flood zones is that insurance premiums should be more affordable, Cox and others also said.