With millions of coastal residents either on the move or hunkering down anxiously in place, Hurricane Florence surged toward North Carolina on Tuesday, tracing an unusual path that could lead to tremendous destruction — especially if the immense storm dumps enormous amounts of rain as it moves inland.
“This could be an unprecedented disaster for North Carolina,” said Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami, in a post on Tuesday on his popular hurricane blog.
A powerful Category 4 storm, with winds over 130 miles per hour, Florence should reach land by Friday, and when it does, is expected to be a monster. In addition to its powerful winds, the storm will slam the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia with a huge, life-threatening storm surge, the National Hurricane Center has predicted.And once it is ashore, its drenching rains may cause “catastrophic flash flooding and significant river flooding” over a wide area of the Carolinas and the Mid-Atlantic states.
In the face of those threats, many coastal residents and vacationing tourists streamed inland on Tuesday, prompted by evacuation orders issued by the governors of North and South Carolina and many local authorities. Others said they would wait, hoping to squeeze in one more day of fishing or beachgoing before heading for the hills. And some said they would defy the storm and stay put.
In Nags Head, N.C., a small beach town in the vulnerable Outer Banks, the mayor, Ben Cahoon, said he and his wife had decided not to leave, despite a mandatory evacuation order that he had helped develop.
“There are folks like myself, who have lived here a long time, who sort of have a sense about these things,” he said. “Whether that’s entirely rational or not, that’s something else.”
Mr. Cahoon, 56, said he would stay for both personal and professional reasons: he wants to be in his own home during the storm, and to be on hand in town in the immediate aftermath to help his constituents recover.
Florence promises to dump exceptional amounts of rain, both on the coast and farther inland. The National Hurricane Center said 15 to 20 inches could fall in many areas, with some localities getting as much as 30 inches. Intense rainfall from tropical storms holds a special threat for areas with hilly or mountainous terrain: In 2011, Hurricane Irene washed out a dozen bridges and 500 miles of roads in Vermont alone.
State officials said it was too soon to gauge the success of their mass evacuation orders. “There are some places where people are doing a better job of leaving than others,” said Bill Holmes, a spokesman for the North Carolina Joint Information Center.
In Carolina Beach, N.C., an island community south of Wilmington, about 75 percent of residents had left by Tuesday afternoon, according to the town manager, Michael Cramer. He said some of the rest would leave on Wednesday, but there were die-hards who would try to ride out the storm in town.
“If somebody needs help, they may be out of luck,” Mr. Cramer said.
Several major highways in South Carolina were made one-way only on Tuesday to accommodate people fleeing the coast. Traffic on U.S. Route 501, which runs north from Myrtle Beach, was four to six times heavier than normal on Tuesday, according to Capt. Kelley Hughes of the state Highway Patrol, while Interstate 26, running west from Charleston, had triple the normal volume.
Across the region, government offices and school systems closed down on Tuesday or said they would do so Wednesday or Thursday, with some school buildings earmarked for duty as emergency shelters. Giant manufacturers like Boeing, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo that have plants in the region suspended operations, and Wal-Mart closed dozens of stores.
Cellphone carriers including AT&T and Verizon said they were fueling and testing generators in the hope of maintaining service if the storm knocks out electric power, as it is likely to do in many areas.
Utilities warned that restoring power after the storm could take days or even weeks. Duke Energy said it was moving crews to the Carolinas from its divisions in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Florida, and would borrow crews from other utilities outside the storm area.
The South Carolina Electric and Gas Company said it would release water through its hydroelectric dam on Lake Murray before the storm to lower the water level in the reservoir and head off flooding.
Climate change is probably contributing to the menace posed by storms like Florence. Gabriel Vecchi, a climate scientist at Princeton University, noted that while many scientists are wary of drawing firm links between any particular storm and climate change, a rising sea level adds to the destructiveness of storm surges, and a warming atmosphere holds more moisture, leading to more rain.
A study last December estimated that Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall total last year was 38 percent higher than it would have been in a world without climate change.
The storm’s rising strength may also be influenced by climate change, according to Jennifer Francis, a research professor at Rutgers University. She noted that warm ocean water, a source of power for such storms, is currently plentiful in the Atlantic.
And the potential for Florence to linger over the Carolinas after it makes landfall, as Harvey did over the Houston area last year, could also be linked to climate change, Dr. Francis said. A body of recent research suggests that disruptions to the atmospheric jet stream have weakened the currents that tend to move weather systems along.
As a result, she said, “we are seeing this tendency for weather patterns to basically get stuck in place in the summertime,” whether it is drought in the West or the drenching summer rains in the Midwest this year. The phenomenon, she said, “tends to take away the steering currents from a tropical storm coming into Texas, like Harvey, or a tropical storm heading toward the Carolinas, like Florence.”
It is uncommon for powerful storms to barrel straight at the North Carolina coast, as Florence is doing. The last Category 4 storm to do so was Hazel in 1954, a storm famous for its destructiveness. Most storms that reach the coastal United States tend to track farther south, hitting Florida or entering the Gulf of Mexico.
Dr. Francis noted that the storms that wander through the same portion of the Atlantic as Florence generally tend to turn north and east before they reach the coast. This year, though, an atmospheric phenomenon known as a blocking high, spun off from the jet stream “like a swirl in the river that separates itself from the main flow,” prevented Florence from making that turn.
Mr. Cramer, the town manager in Carolina Beach, said he was worried about projections that Florence would be comparable to Hazel, which nearly wiped his town of 6,200 year-round residents off the map completely, destroying 362 buildings there.
The coastline that Florence will plow into this week is, if anything, even more vulnerable than the one Hazel struck in 1954. Americans have flocked to the nation’s shores and have built extensively there in recent decades, ensuring that any modern storm will do much more property damage than those of previous generations.
The trend has also put many more people directly in harm’s way. In 2010, 39 percent of Americans lived in counties directly on the shoreline — 123 million people, a 40 percent rise since 1970 — and the 2020 census is expected to show that figure growing by another 10 million people.
Dr. Vecchi of Princeton said society needed to find a way to address the causes of climate change — though perhaps not this week. “Right now, I would focus on everybody getting safe, and away from Florence,” he said. “But afterward, there’s other questions that need to be asked.”