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There was nothing like the threat of a major hurricane to dampen the Labor Day holiday even though Hurricane Dorian was nowhere near North Carolina on Monday. It’s hard to relax or party when you’re waiting for the heavy rain and winds with no clear idea what to expect.
Most residents along the southeastern coast of the U.S. were keeping an anxious eye on the Category 4-5 storm as it neared Florida at a snail’s pace and was predicted to head northward and arrive in the Carolinas from late Wednesday through Thursday. Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency on Saturday, noting that the coast was already starting to feel the early effects of the not-so-far-away storm.
Nash County is far enough inland that we rarely get the full brunt of hurricanes that pass through North Carolina. It’s the coastal counties that usually get hammered by the cyclonic winds, many miserable inches of rain and the dread storm surges and flooding.
We’re relatively fortunate (and the key word is relatively) to endure little more than stiffer winds, lots of steady rain and minor damage from fallen trees and power lines even while coastal homes and businesses are devastated. Often we can anticipate some power failures as trees drag down lines or transformers blow, but the power — at least in town — is seldom out for longer than a few hours or a day.
But anybody, even in southern Nash County, who doesn’t take a hurricane seriously is seriously deluded. All hurricanes can be dangerous and life-threatening.
Because of its location, North Carolina is ranked fourth in the country — after Florida, Texas and Louisiana — in the number of hurricane-force storms. Over the years, according to historical records, hurricanes in North Carolina have caused almost 1,000 fatalities and more than $11 billion in damage.
I’m a native of Virginia Beach and spent much of my childhood living within a few blocks of the beach. I learned firsthand how powerfully the combination of rain, wind and ocean can wreak devastation. I remember one hurricane where my family spent a terrifying night and day huddled in an interior stairwell of our house as the wind and rain howled around a shaking building, interrupted only by the eerie and temporary stillness of the eye as it passed over us.
What really rattled me was that it doesn’t have to be a big named hurricane to create mayhem and disaster. One weekend, with no notice and little publicity, a severe Nor’easter without a name blew through Virginia Beach one night. When it was over, the beach was 15-20 feet lower, gouged out by the surf. And where there had been a supposedly sturdy and very large three-story house the day before, the next day after the storm was reduced to nothing left standing but a front door. The rest of the house had completely disappeared, washed out to sea.
Most of the time, hurricanes passing through Spring Hope bend the pine trees and leave leafy debris and scattered fallen trees. But many Spring Hope residents remember Hurricane Fran on Sept. 5, 1996, that veered inland and roared overhead on its way to pummel Raleigh. It also left a deep gash in Spring Hope. U.S. 64-Alternate through town was a green leafy tunnel due to fallen trees and snapped branches. Downed power lines knocked power out all over town, in some areas for days. The Red Cross even opened a site in town, offering food and water to affected victims.
And who can forget Hurricane Floyd in 1996? It was only a Category 2 storm when it hit North Carolina, and didn’t leave that much damage here, but it came only a few weeks over Hurricane Dennis, another Category 2 storm, saturated eastern North Carolina with rain twice.
The rain from Floyd, with nowhere to go, swelled the rivers and creeks, creating flooding throughout the area, especially in Rocky Mount and Nashville, after the storm had passed. Spring Hope was an island, surrounded by water-covered roads. The flooding from Floyd created massive and long-lasting damage and killed many.
In the last three years, two Category 1 hurricanes —Matthew in 2016 and Florence last year — dumped as many as 30 inches of rain on eastern North Carolina, bringing back Floyd-level flooding and devastating communities along the coast and in the southeastern part of the state. And what’s even more concerning is that climate change is causing the storms hitting the U.S. to be even more severe and higher in category than ever before. Since the federal government has become totally useless in protecting the environment, hurricanes will be more fierce, more damaging and more fatal than we’ve ever experienced.
I don’t know whether we’ll be spared or struck, but I hope everyone took the threat seriously and prepared for the worst. Many years ago an Enterprise columnist wrote an incredibly dumb column in which he complained that a hurricane did not arrive as predicted after he had worked hard to prepare for it.
I guarantee I will not complain if we missed the wrath of Hurricane Dorian. And my prayer is that everyone in southern Nash County is safe.
Ken Ripley, a resident of Spring Hope, is The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.