Slow, Steady and Deadly

Florence made landfall as a slow-moving rainmaker with flooding that forced boat owners and builders to stay vigilant
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Steve Helber / AP

Hurricane Florence wreaked havoc in a marina in New Bern, North Carolina.

Capt. Lee Sykes started getting the Mayday calls as soon as Hurricane Florence hit. Despite days’ worth of evacuation notices, weather forecasters begging viewers to take warnings seriously, and officials urging millions of people to get the heck away from the Carolina coastline, some boaters decided to stay and take their chances against an approaching storm as big as the state of Michigan. They didn’t last long. Sykes, who operates the TowboatUS franchise in Morehead City, North Carolina, says people aboard sailboats in Beaufort were calling for help from the waterfront. He heard commercial fishing boats issuing Maydays. There were about a dozen calls in all. “Some of them were right after it started, and some waited until it was up over 100-mph winds,” Sykes says. “We actually could not respond then. We had to wait until that wind died down.”

Everyone, he says, was all right in the end. There wasn’t much talking once he got to the boaters in distress. “You can’t sit there and try to reason with someone who was warned and put themselves in that kind of jeopardy, and then put other resources in jeopardy when they got into a bad spot.”

A sailboat rests against a 
collapsed garage in New Bern.

A sailboat rests against a collapsed garage in New Bern.

Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, as a slow-moving rainmaker, dropping historic levels of water and creating flooding that shocked people who had lived in the coastal regions for decades. While early predictions had been for a major wind event, Florence turned out to be a killer by precipitation, with dozens of deaths reported, including some from raging floodwaters. The residents of Swansboro, North Carolina, saw a record-setting 33.89 inches of rain —shattering the all-time state record of 24.06 inches set in 1999 during Hurricane Floyd. Some rivers were predicted to crest even higher than they did during the devastating Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

“It was so much worse than we had thought,” says Avery Brooks, a lifelong resident of New Bern, North Carolina, and associate brand manager for Hatteras Yachts, which is based there on the Neuse River. “It slowed down to a Category 1 and everybody breathed a sigh of relief, but then the water got higher than I’ve ever seen in my life.” And yet, while the Hatteras facility was in the storm’s bull’s-eye, early reports were good from the shipyard, where finished hulls were stored to weather Florence’s worst punches. “It’s the way the facility is built,” Brooks says. “We have a big basin where we do deliveries and put the boats in and out. But the places we were tucking boats, they’re a lot farther back away from the river.”

Hurricane Florence as seen from

Hurricane Florence as seen from

Brian Horsley, a resident of North Carolina’s Outer Banks since the 1970s and a fishing guide there since the 1990s, says his boats were unscathed after being put away inside the Jones Brothers Marine facility at Morehead City. “New Bern, their town docks, they had a bunch of boats sink,” Horsley says. “But if you’re not smart enough to move them, you get what you get.”

A couple of days before Florence hit, she was a Category 4 storm. Experts were comparing her to Hurricane Hugo, which slammed into the South Carolina coast as a Category 4 in 1989, with 140-mph sustained winds. But about 24 hours before Florence’s outer bands started to hit the East Coast, the Hugo comparisons faded. She was still powerful—with wave heights at 83 feet and a breadth that left some 10 million Americans under hurricane watches or warnings—but she was downgraded to a Category 2 as her wind speeds eased.

A motorboat took out a house in New Bern.

A motorboat took out a house in New Bern.

At that point, comparisons began between Florence and 1999’s Hurricane Floyd, a torrential rainmaker that hit Cape Fear in North Carolina as a Category 2 and caused widespread flooding for weeks, with river basins exceeding 500-year flood levels. When Florence did make landfall near Wrightsville Beach, she was a Category 1 with winds of 90 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. Forecasters urged people to remain vigilant, not only in the face of her powerful storm surge, but also because of her slow speed. She was moving at just 4 mph, lingering for days and pouring down rain, much like Hurricane Harvey did last year. Harvey dropped more than 40 inches of rain during four days over Texas and left 13,500 boats damaged or lost in the region. The highest rainfall total for Florence after three days was just shy of 34 inches.

Florence, with her extensive rainfall, added to an increasing number of storms that are slowing down, sticking around longer and dropping monstrous amounts of rain. Research published in the scientific journal Nature this past June showed that such storms are becoming a trend, as global warming heats the oceans. Jim Kossin, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that in the past 70 years, hurricanes have slowed 10 percent over open waters and 16 percent on the U.S. Coast. “The last thing you want (the hurricane) to do is stay in your neighborhood longer then they used to, and that’s what we found,” Kossin told the ABC affiliate in Madison. Florence also took an unusual track. Most hurricanes hit the Carolinas from different angles. About a week before Florence struck, she was in a position toward the north that usually sends storms out to sea. Since 1851, 33 named storms have gotten to the position where Florence was swirling less than a week before landfall, and none of them hit the United States, according to Colorado State University meteorologist Phil Klotzbach. The New York Times reported that the last Category 4 storm to barrel straight at North Carolina the way Florence did was Hazel, in 1954.

Three days after Florence made landfall, the U.S. Coast Guard said ports at Wilmington and Morehead City, as well as Georgetown, South Carolina, remained closed. The North Carolina Ports Authority said initial assessments showed damage to warehouses and other buildings, as well as “a significant number of downed empty containers.”

In the good news category were early reports from North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where a mandatory evacuation order was issued before Florence hit—along with doomsday predictions. The Outer Banks’ low-lying islands are experiencing some of the fastest rates of sea-level rise in the world, according to The Associated Press, with projections that oceans will rise more than 6 feet by the end of this century, washing over towns at high tide. But with Florence, quite a few newscasters used the phrase “dodged a bullet” to describe the Outer Banks. Residents returned to find minimal damage, and no injuries or deaths. Sand dunes appeared generally okay and harbors were empty, with just a few boats scattered.

Horsley, the longtime Outer Banks fishing guide, said a few days after the storm that locals were expecting to be without power for weeks. Reports were still coming in of damage to local marinas. “Some of the dry stacks in Atlantic Beach got damaged pretty severely,” he says. He hadn’t heard any reports about aids to navigation or shoaling at Oregon Inlet, but he wasn’t expecting it to be worse for the wear. “Storms change things; they always do,” he says. “We had one evening with a rain band that blew 50, but the rest of the time it blew 30 to 40. We get that all winter. So I am going to say that aids to navigation in and around Oregon Inlet are about as good as they’ve always been.”

The Cape Lookout National Seashore— popular among boaters for fishing, camping and bird-watching—was closed for at least two weeks so the National Park Service could assess damage. The seashore’s iconic lighthouse, opened in 1859, made it through the storm, but a number of cabins, roadways and dunes were destroyed. Early reports were that Florence did not create any new inlets, and that the area’s beloved wild horses seemed to be all right.

At Harkers Island Fishing Center on the Outer Banks, Rob Pasfield was in a surprisingly good mood. When Hurricane Matthew barreled through in 2016, his marina got torn to bits and his docks ended up in his parking lot. Florence was the first big test of his new concrete docks. “We did all right,” he told Soundings. “It’s tore up, we’re out of power, but we’re still here.”

Sykes, the TowboatUS operator from Morehead City, said many of the calls he was getting three days after the storm were for hazardous materials. Numerous waterfront facilities had old oil vats and fuel tanks that were releasing into the water. Beyond that, he said, people were still trying to figure out just how bad the damage really was. In some places, he said, there was cause for serious concern. “A lot of marinas are totally wiped out,” Sykes says. “Our crews are over at the Crow’s Nest facility, and the dry stack collapsed with the boats inside. We’ve got a 60-foot yacht at a hotel. The surge drove it up into the building. That’s in New Bern.”

Almost a week after the storm made landfall, many eyes remained on New Bern, the city that continued to lead national newscasts with flooding emergencies and rivers still rising. Jeff Donahue, long a skipper with Hatteras and Cabo Yachts, was the first employee to reach the shipyard after floodwaters on the main road went down enough that he could get his truck through. He used the flashlight on his smartphone to take a look around. The main building, a good 25 feet above river height, was totally dry, and all the boats that had been tucked inside were okay.

Said Donahue, “As soon as we get power, we’ll get the building up and running. But our first priority is our people. Some have damage at home to take care of. When they’re ready, they’ll come back.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue.