Hurricane Floyd didn’t act alone

Published 6:17 pm Thursday, September 17, 2009

Daily News Correspondent

The crime scene is disturbingly large, and the evidence is still there — tucked away into cleared or overgrown corners of North Carolina’s coastal plain.
The perpetrator is long gone, though, having disappeared in mid-September 1999.
The printed radar evidence remains: emerald-and-crimson paper images of a whirling, elongated monster with the improbable name of Hurricane Floyd.
This beast took approximately 52 lives and ruined 7,300 homes in the Tarheel state, according to author Jay Barnes’ book, “North Carolina’s Hurricane History.”
But Floyd, while not a benign force, did leave its victims gifts in the form of lessons learned.
“Every hurricane disaster, once we’ve survived the storm and we get through it, we always learn lessons,” Barnes said in a recent interview. “With Hurricane Floyd, we experienced the worst flood in North Carolina’s history, and there are countless lessons to be learned from that.”
Floyd brought on what climatologists refer to as a “500-year flood,” a term accepted with a caveat by one area atmospheric scientist.
“I think some caution has to be put in these kind of names,” said Scott Curtis, an assistant professor at East Carolina University. “Just because it’s a 500-year flood doesn’t mean that sort of flood couldn’t happen again.”
The right confluence of meteorological events could again deliver a Floyd-like impact, Curtis cautioned. He added that climate change might make such an event more likely.
Origins of a killer
Call it a “perfect-storm” scenario: the time of year was right, the Atlantic waters were warm and certain key weather factors were coming together to make Floyd a force to be reckoned with.
But, like many such storms, Floyd first emerged as a simple, monsoonal cluster of thunderstorms over the African plains.
As Barnes notes in his book, mid- to late-season hurricanes are frequently called Cape Verde storms because they originate in the coastal vicinity of the Cape Verde islands off Senegal and Mauritania.
According to an online report from the National Hurricane Center, Floyd, a classic Cape Verde storm, found its path to the United States through a “deep-layer ridge” of air.
Steered by favorable currents, and well-positioned over steamy ocean waters, Floyd achieved hurricane status on Sept. 10, 1999, the report reads.
As it trekked west-northwest, Floyd passed through cycles of weakening and strengthening, eventually spinning up winds of approximately 155 mph and obtaining the dreaded Category 5 status, the highest level on the Saffir-Simpson rating scale.
As the storm approached the United States, it took a more northward tack, sparing Florida a direct hit.
Floyd gradually weakened, perhaps because of the “entrainment,” or digestion, of dry air and southerly winds that cut off the tops of its thunderstorms, the report suggests.
North Carolinians might have thought they would avoid severe hurricane impacts as the diminished Category 2 storm approached the Crystal Coast.
But the scope of the coming disaster was beyond imagination, sources said.
Thieves come together
As Floyd made landfall on Sept. 16, it began to steal lives, hours and property from eastern North Carolinians.
Yet, that landfall was only part of a catastrophe whose roots actually predated Floyd.
The killer storm was preceded by Hurricane Dennis in late August-early September.
Dennis initially brushed by the Outer Banks, bringing heavy rains to coastal portions of the state. But Dennis paused as it headed out to sea, and it soon made an astounding about-face, coming ashore as a tropical storm as it moved in south of the Cape Fear.
Dennis helped set the stage for the great floods to come, Curtis related.
“There was so much water associated with Dennis that when Floyd came through it caused an even greater flood,” he said.
Yet, it took more than Dennis to fill up rivers, ditches and streams ahead of Floyd.
In fact, Floyd passed through “a classic set-up,” allowing the region to receive lots of rain over time, said Phillip Williams, who was chief meteorologist at WNCT-TV in 1999.
On its way up the coast, Floyd began interacting with a trough, or area of low pressure, situated over the east, Williams said.
The collision of these two low-pressure areas created lift in the atmosphere, leading to large levels of precipitation before the main storm arrived, he said.
Also, flooding rains hit eastern North Carolina between Dennis and Floyd, according to Williams and old newspaper articles. For these reasons, the inundation widely attributed to Floyd was actually the product of four rain events, according to Williams.
“The initial concern was the wind-driven flooding with places like Washington and New Bern,” he said. “Then came the fear of the inland flooding.”
Williams said he had expected Floyd to bring high water, but noted that no one had anticipated the severity of the flooding.
In 1999, computer models that helped forecasters predict flooding along the Tar River placed the high-water mark at 24 feet, Williams said.
Huge amounts of rain from Floyd and its predecessors caused the river to eclipse the old model mark by more than 5 inches, lifting the Tar to a crest of 29.72 feet on Sept. 21, “more than 16 feet above flood stage,” Barnes’ book reads.
Power of recall
A number of people drowned while driving into floodwaters during and after Floyd, Williams pointed out. That’s the lesson that should be remembered, he said.
“To me, the most important thing is that people died from that flooding,” he said, adding that inland floods are the deadliest weapons in hurricanes’ arsenals.
To Barnes, Floyd was a game-changer on many fronts.
The disaster led to the relocation of many residents who had lived in the floodplain, and North Carolina now has “the best floodplain maps in the nation,” he said.
But, like Curtis and Williams, Barnes was reluctant to view Floyd as an isolated anomaly.
As an example of what hurricanes can do, Barnes pointed to the multiple storm strikes and flooding that ravaged coastal North Carolina during the 1955 season.
“The flooding in eastern North Carolina, although not as record-breaking as Floyd, it was still significant in ’55,” he said.
Some people seem to have forgotten how nasty Floyd was, Curtis suggested, adding that structures have been rebuilt on land that was eroded during the storm.
“It’s the worst natural disaster to hit North Carolina,” he said. “It happened 10 years ago, and I think people have a short memory. I think we tend to forget the devastation it caused in terms of loss of lives and the immense property damage. And flooding is just a terrible, terrible thing because it just totally destroys families and lives.”