Hurricane Florence as seen by GOES 16 satellite two days prior to landfall. Photo courtesy of N.C. Climate Office

By Jessica Whitehead

Just after Labor Day, the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (commonly known as “the European model” or “the Euro”) hinted that a low-pressure area that started back near the Cabo Verde islands off west Africa might threaten North Carolina around Sept. 13. This would be unusual: Florence began its journey well north of the storms that historically make landfall in North Carolina.

At 5 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 9, the National Hurricane Center forecast placed Florence’s center somewhere between Virginia Beach, Virginia, and Savannah, Georgia. The center of that cone was around Topsail Island, Pender County. 

At one point on Tuesday, Sept. 11, Florence was a Category 4 storm, but that was for sustained winds only per the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.

Forecasters from the National Hurricane Center and our local National Weather Service office in Newport warned Florence’s true danger was water, the same as Matthew in 2016, Floyd in 1999 and the unnamed July 1916 storm.

As Florence weakened, its wind field, though less intense, expanded, as did its rainfall footprint.

At 7:15 a.m. on Sept.14, Florence’s eye made landfall near Wrightsville Beach, New Hanover County.

Then, just as the National Weather Service had forecast, high pressure all around blocked Florence’s forward progress.

Florence moved slowly southeastward, raining on central and southeastern North Carolina for days. A volunteer observer in Elizabethtown, Bladen County, measured 35.93 inches in a calibrated rain gauge.

If meteorologists verify the measurement, it will set a new record for rainfall from a single tropical system in the state.

Tropical moisture streamed in a fire hose aimed at the Neuse, Cape Fear, Lumber and Waccamaw River basins. In many places flood heights were higher than observed in Matthew and Floyd.

It will take through the end of September for the last of Florence’s floodwaters to exit through Winyah Bay in South Carolina.

Next time, the rains could come to northeastern North Carolina and Ocracoke. And there will be a next time.

Jessica Whitehead is the coastal communities’ hazards adaptation specialist for North Carolina Sea Grant. She holds a Ph.D. in geography and a Master of Science degree in meteorology from The Pennsylvania State University.

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