Hurricanes With climate change, North Carolina's seen more severe weather events like Florence © NASA/NOAA

Stories in North Carolina

Hurricane Florence: One Year Later

An update on TNC’s efforts to recover from Hurricane Florence in the Southeast Coastal Plain.

When Hurricane Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach on September 14, 2018, it was the wettest tropical cyclone on record in the Carolinas. The City of Wilmington was cut off from the rest of the world for several days as everyone waited for the flood waters to recede.

Damage to North Carolina Preserves

Angie Carl, who leads TNC’s on-the-ground work in the region, and her staff witnessed the damage from Hurricane Florence firsthand. Two of her team members were displaced from their homes. The dedicated group has worked tirelessly to fix the damage done by Hurricane Florence. Carl estimates that repairs to preserves are approximately 85 to 90 percent complete.

“We couldn’t actually get into the preserves until after the first of the year because there was so much rain post-hurricane,” explains Carl. “It was the wettest year on record.” Now the region is currently experiencing its driest season ever recorded.

The drought has allowed the team to bring equipment into the preserves without tearing up the sites. But as access to the areas opened, so too did Carl’s eyes to the damage done.

“There was a lot more damage than we had anticipated. It was an expensive and long, drawn-out process trying to get to the point where we could even get back into our preserves and manage to do the work that we needed to do.”

But nature is resilient. Carl notes that most of the damage was to infrastructure such as roads and culverts rather than the landscape itself.

Wilmington waterfront
Cape Fear River Wilmington waterfront © Skip Pudney

All-Natural Remedies

Natural systems in the Southeast Coastal Plain need disturbance. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and fire are all types of disturbance. Carl believes these systems were built for this. Young longleaf pines go through a grass stage where they spend anywhere from one to seven years developing an extensive taproot that stabilizes them against hurricanes.

“We have these wetlands where we’ve streamlined rivers and changed ditching and things like that and we’re getting more flooding. But the Black River had 30-some feet of water in it and the trees out there are fine and even the millennial-age trees survived.”

Problems start to creep in when the cycle of disturbance becomes more and more frequent, as we’ve seen as a result of climate change. If the occurrence of extremely high flooding cycles continues, Carl predicts that the added stress on the trees could dramatically alter the system. But for now, preserves in the Southeast Coastal Plain continue to display their time-tested resilience.

Fire in the Longleaf System

In what could be an ode to nature’s resilience, TNC’s Southeast Coastal Plains Office will host its annual Fire in the Pines Festival on October 12, 2019.

Last year’s festival served as a welcomed break from thinking about the hurricane for a few hours, taking place less than a month after the storm. As the community recovers, Fire in the Pines aims to be a fun and educational day celebrating the many benefits of fire—with 75-year-old Smokey Bear making a special appearance.

Fire is important for our system of fire forests just like rainforests need rain.

Coastal Fire and Restoration Manager, The Nature Conservancy

The Road to Recovery

Following any kind of natural disaster, the first few weeks are usually filled with outreach and news coverage. The complete isolation of Wilmington only seemed to heighten people’s willingness to reach out a helping hand. Unfortunately, nothing could be done until the flood waters receded.

One year removed from the devastating hurricane, Florence serves as a distant memory for many in the state. But for the communities that were hit hardest, recovery is still a daily grind.

“Everyone just forgets about it,” says Carl, “but the people who live here haven’t forgotten about it and they’re still feeling the effects of it.”

For the members of the community who were displaced after the storm, there’s still some waiting to do. Carl told us that one of her team members is expected to move back into his home sometime after Thanksgiving.

“I feel like Florida is probably in the same position with Hurricane Michael. With Katrina, it took [New Orleans] forever to get past that. Harvey in Houston—I think the ground sank a couple of centimeters because of all the water. We should remember these things are happening in quicker succession. Climate change is real.”