Hurricane Floyd brought epic flooding to North Carolina

Ten years ago, Hurricane Floyd came ashore at Cape Fear, North Carolina, bringing flooding of epic proportions. Before the waters receded, the little town of Princeville and parts of several other towns would be underwater, and rescuers in boats and helicopters would pluck 1,500 people from roofs across eastern North Carolina.

Hurricane Floyd became one of the most expensive disasters in the state’s history. But the stage was set for Floyd’s devastation by a nearly forgotten storm that lingered over the state a couple of weeks earlier. Hurricane Dennis soaked the Outer Banks and eastern North Carolina, moved offshore, then looped around and gave the same area a second dousing. The ground was saturated with at least 10 inches of rain from Dennis when Floyd came ashore.

Hurricane Floyd formed from a tropical wave that moved off the west coast of Africa on September 2, 1999. Floyd got its start in the infamous spawning grounds of monster hurricanes near the Cape Verde Islands. “Floyd was a classic Cape Verde storm, very large, one of the largest I can remember,” recalled Rusty Pfost, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Miami.

By September 12, Floyd had developed into a major hurricane. I was in the Florida Keys working on research with historian Jerry Wilkinson. Around 6 a.m. on the morning of Monday, September 13, 1999, Jerry and I checked The Weather Channel. Floyd’s peak winds were approaching 150 mph, and it had turned toward the Bahamas and the Keys.

Jerry and I stared at each other for a moment. “I’ve got to get the hell out of here,” I said.

I helped Jerry and Mary board up their house on Key Largo. Around 9:30 a.m. I started one of the eeriest journeys of my life.

As I drove northward from the Keys up the Florida peninsula, Floyd was ripping into the Bahamas with winds of around 155 mph. It seemed that I was just ahead of a rippling wave of fear. When I stopped for gas, lines were starting to form at the pumps. Interstate 95 was gradually getting more crowded. I got the feeling that if I stopped for even a few minutes, I’d be engulfed by traffic. So I kept moving.

I stopped for the night in Darien, Georgia, about 60 miles south of Savannah. I was back on the road early the next morning. Behind me, Floyd had turned and was menacing the southeast coast from Jacksonville north. What would become the largest peacetime evacuation in U.S. history was starting. During the next two days, more than 2.3 million people from Florida to Maryland would move inland. In South Carolina, Interstate 26 from Charleston to Columbia was gridlocked.

Rain was falling steadily when I reached eastern North Carolina, and in some places secondary roads were already underwater because the ground couldn’t absorb any more water. That seemed ominous.

The hurricane’s eye passed over Plymouth around 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, September 16. By that time, the storm’s winds had diminished dramatically. Around 9:30 a.m. we lost power, but it was back on by 3 p.m. Other than the brief power outage and a few tree limbs down, we saw little effects from Hurricane Floyd in Plymouth.

Still, the storm dumped around 20 inches of rain on ground still saturated from Dennis. The results were devastating. Everything around us seemed to be underwater. But we were high and dry in Plymouth.

I heard later that we’d stayed above water here because the Roanoke River’s floodplain has not been altered by development. When Floyd’s floodwaters came downstream, the water spread out into the Roanoke’s natural wetlands. So we were untouched in Plymouth. But if we’d wanted to go to Raleigh, about 120 miles west on U.S. 64, we’d have had to drive north into Virginia and then turn back into North Carolina to get around the swollen rivers and flooded roads.

It was weeks before the waters receded and the cleanup could begin.

The Wilmington (N.C) Star-News reported Hurricane Floyd’s grim stats:

· 35 people killed in North Carolina, most of them drowning in freshwater. A total of 57 people died during Hurricane Floyd in the U.S. and Bahamas.

· Spectacular livestock losses in North Carolina, including 2.1 million chickens, 753,000 turkeys, and 21,500 hogs.

· $6 billion in damages in North Carolina.

· 7,000 North Carolina homes destroyed, 17,000 homes uninhabitable, and 56,000 homes damaged.

Photo: NOAA satellite photo shows Hurricane Floyd approaching U.S.

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