Western Carolina Expert Shares Insight On Hurricane Florence For The Coast And The Mountains

Sep 13, 2018

The greatest effect of Hurricane Florence will be felt along the coast from Bald Head Island to Topsail Beach says Director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines Robert Young.

Young, who heads the Western Carolina University program in partnership with Duke, has been studying the coast on many front including helping coastal communities plan for sea level rise and hurricanes.

The program has developed a protocol to assess the vulnerability of infrastructure on the coast. It is being used on everything from the Statue of Liberty to the Everglades, says Young.

One of his projects is particularly useful while talking about potential hurricane damage: The Storm Surge Viewer.

Young and his team of scientists including Katie Peek and Blair Tormey built the database which tracks all storm surge levels since the 1800s. The historical data can helps scientists predict storm surge heights. Florence is currently expected to bring storm surges as high as 19 feet. Young explains that a storm surge is the excess water brought into the shore by the hurricane. The height of the water that we will see on the coast is the amount of storm surge plus the tide and any additional rain water. This means that the water level will be higher than the number of feet predicted in the storm surge.

“So if there if a storm surge of ten feet at high tide which is plus two feet above the North Carolina sea level so the storm surge would mean that you will be at twelve feet and then the waves would be in addition to that,” says Young. “Any height of that wave is on top of that twelve feet.”

The size of a hurricane’s storm surge does not factor into the category of a storm. So the downgrade of Florence from a category 5 to a category 2 doesn’t necessarily mean that the surge will be smaller, says Young. The North Carolina coast has already started to feel tropical force winds today.

“Now’s the time when we stop projecting and we just sit back and watch,” says Young.  

For Western North Carolina, the storm is not going to be felt until Saturday. The National Weather Service has issued a flood watch for the area starting Saturday at 8 am through Tuesday. It is unclear if high winds will be a part of the forecast at this point, says Young.   

“We are currently still beyond the three day prediction envelope and the cone of uncertainty that we have of where the storm will go is gigantic so I’m really hesitant to make any predictions about what it’s going to be like here in Western North Carolina,” says Young.

“I find it very unfortunate that the consensus track (where they draw the middle of the cone) goes through through Cullowhee.”

Overall, Young says that evacuees from the coast who have fled to the mountains made the right choice.

“My advice is to remain calm,” says Young. “We will know a lot more in two days and you will still have two day to get ready - so don’t empty the shelves yet.”