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Hurricane Florence: What the Carolinas Learned 
from the Second 1,000-Year Flood in Two Years

Lessons from Past Floods: Part 1

In this three-part series, we explore three flooding events from recent years to see what we can learn about the damage they caused, how flood risks are rising, how local and federal officials responded, and how communities are building flood resilience in their wake.

When Hurricane Florence made landfall on the Southern Atlantic coast on September 14, 2018, the impacts were devastating and widespread. The days-long deluge flooded thousands of homes, sunk highways, swamped hog farms, and eventually cost the Carolinas billions of dollars to rebuild.

All of this came just under two years after Hurricane Matthew, a storm of equal scale, battered the same region.

Now, the communities hardest hit by Florence are rebuilding and redefining flood plans to be better prepared for the next big one, as climate change continues to accelerate the frequency of “1,000-year” flooding events. Here’s what homeowners and policymakers across the country can learn from them.

The Flood Damage: From Homes to Hog Farms

Florence smashed records and brought destruction to communities all along the Carolina coasts and as far inland as Durham and Chapel Hill.

Here’s a look at Hurricane Florence’s damage, in numbers:

  • More than 35 inches of rain accumulated in some areas.
  • 10 trillion gallons of water flooded across the Carolinas.
  • At least 50 people died.
  • Thousands of homes flooded, totaling between $17-22 billion worth of damage, making Florence one of the costliest disasters on record.
  • It was classified as a “1,000-year flood event,” given its .1% probability in any given year.

North Carolina faced unique environmental damage as well: waste from hog farm lagoons overflowed into nearby communities and floodwaters breached a toxic coal ash pond, posing major concerns for public health. Florence also flooded roadways so heavily that Wilmington became an island – and no one could travel to or from for a week.

The Carolinas were still recovering from Hurricane Matthew two years prior in 2016, which was also classified as a 1,000-year flood. The little breathing room between both catastrophic events compounded Hurricane Florence’s damage as many residents had only recently rebuilt or were still in the process of recovering, only for their homes to be flooded anew.

The Flood Risk: How Climate Change Intensified Florence

Days before Florence made landfall, a group of scientists made predictions based on several simulations. What did they predict? That climate change would make Florence worse. And it did.

The researchers revisited their calculations after the storm ended and found that climate change did indeed amplify the magnitude of Hurricane Florence in three ways:

  • Rainfall. Warmer sea surface temperatures and available moisture in the atmosphere increased total rainfall amounts by 50 percent.
  • Diameter. Florence was about 80 kilometers larger due to the effect of climate change in the surrounding environment.
  • Duration. Florence was more intense for a longer portion of the forecast period due to lower surface pressure.

rainfall forecast

Figure 1: Projected rainfalls for Hurricane Florence versus a theoretical storm without amplification from climate change. Source: Reed et al.

More rain and a longer duration mean more intense damage, and larger diameters mean more people were impacted, including residents of further inland areas.

Climate change isn’t increasing the frequency of storms themselves, but it’s increasing the scale of naturally occurring storms. The “1,000-year flood event,” which refers to probability, not history, will become more common as the appearance of Florence just two years after Matthew demonstrates.

Massive storms made worse by global warming aren’t a potential problem we’ll face in the future. They’re already happening, and flood risk for millions of Americans is growing.

The Response: FEMA Flood Insurance Maps Add More Properties, but Many More Remain At-Risk

In the past year, FEMA has updated flood maps for many of the areas that bore the brunt of Hurricane Florence. FEMA began adding properties to the maps before Florence, but the intensity of Florence’s damage proved that the increased flood risk for properties affected was accurate.

Properties in FEMA-designated Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs) are required to get insurance, which is crucial in mitigating financial losses due to flood damage. But many homeowners who are vulnerable to flooding may be unaware that their homeowner’s insurance won’t cover flood damage if FEMA doesn’t require them to have flood insurance.

The Future: Building Stronger Infrastructure and Getting Insurance to Those Who Need It

In the aftermath of a major flood, homeowners, community officials, and government agencies work together to repair and rebuild to be more resilient in future floods.

Multiple Hurricane Florence recovery projects are underway in partnership with federal and local government agencies. ReBuild NC, an initiative launched by the state of North Carolina, has begun strategic redevelopment of river basins and is adding flood-resistant infrastructure to homes and commercial properties. ReBuild NC also has a homeowner recovery program that provides assistance or reimbursement for repair for uninsured damage.

According to NC Flood, North Carolina’s flood insurance program, homeowners can take or participate in the following financial and structural precautions to mitigate flood damage:

Measures Financial Mitigation Structural Mitigation
Purchase insurance X
Participate in a buyout program X
Landscaping measures X
Installation of flood vents X
Elevation of HVAC, machinery, and foundations X
Stormwater management and stream restoration X

Unfortunately, because Florence came so far inland, many homeowners who weren’t required by flood maps to have flood insurance or flood-resistant architecture faced costly and uninsured repairs. If there’s any takeaway from the far-reaching devastation of Florence, it’s that you don’t need to live right by the water for your home to be wrecked by flooding.

Not sure if your home has characteristics that might make it more susceptible to flood damage? Talk to an agent to better understand your flood risk.

The Coasts Will See More Florences in Future Hurricane Seasons

The case of Hurricane Florence tells us several important things about the nature of flooding today. Perhaps most importantly, climate change will bring more intense storms to the coasts each hurricane season, and the heightened scale of those storms have the potential to impact more people.

This means flood policymakers must plan accordingly for the increased flood risk of millions of homeowners, including those that liver further inland. These communities need appropriate insurance, appropriate flood-resistant infrastructure, and appropriate assistance programs to be resilient during future floods.

To learn more about what you can do now to prepare for a flood, head to our Intro to Flood page.

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