As I write this, Hurricane Florence is inching across North Carolina with the speed of oozing hair gel, as a much-diminished Category 1 storm. The extent of her damage remains unclear, perhaps even yet undone, but it is evident that parts of North Carolina are taking serious hits. As is always the case with hurricanes, coastal residents and property owners watch the storms with resignation, knowing they are on borrowed time.
Hurricane Hazel in 1954 continues to be the benchmark hurricane for Baby Boomers. For millennials, the benchmark is Hurricane Fran in 1996. They are in the pantheon of epic storms, including Andrew, a Cat 5 storm that set Florida on its heels. One friend who survived it still describes her life as BA (before Andrew) and AA (after Andrew).
In 2005, Katrina, another Cat 5, decimated the Gulf Coast, displaced thousands and overwhelmed organizations trying to help.
The deadliest hurricane in American history predates naming and categorizing and is simply called the Great Storm of 1900, probably as what we would now term a Cat 4. It struck Galveston, Texas, without warning and is believed to have taken between 6,000 and 12,000 lives, the greatest natural disaster in our nation’s history. As significant as hurricanes can be, technology now allows us to know what is coming and to prepare, an advantage the people of Galveston and countless other places facing natural disasters did not have.
North Carolinians love our hurricane stories, some of which include hurricane parties. The morning after Fran passed through Fayetteville, the Dicksons and every other family on our one-block Haymount street were out in our yards surveying the damage, which was abundant. More than half of the 15 houses on our block had trees through their roofs, and one house had two – one from the front yard and one from the back – crashing into the vacant bed of a school-age child. TV crews filmed that house so often that we neighbors were convinced they were trying to hire the property owner. Parents were frantically trying to keep children away from downed but still live power lines spanning the narrow street.
Our neighborhood was without power for six long days in sweltering humidity, but we were luckier than many on that score. I remember turning onto our street on the sixth day and meeting a Florida utility truck whose crew had just restored our power. Thrilled beyond measure, I blew kisses to those kind men in full daylight in front of God and country.
Fran took the lives of 24 North Carolinians and caused more than $11 billion in damages to homes, businesses, infrastructure, crops and timber. She covered two-thirds of our state with winds and rain and cut new inlets along the coast. She reminded hurricane veterans and newcomers alike that when Mother Nature goes on a tear, there is not much to do but hunker down as safely as possible and watch with our fingers crossed.
In the 22 years since Fran struck, other hurricanes, including the recently departed Florence, have come and gone. No one knows what the rest of hurricane season 2018 will bring, but keep this in mind – in 1996, North Carolina’s population was 7.5 million people. Today, we are the 10th largest state with almost 10.4 million residents, many of whom have never experienced a hurricane at all, much less a Fran or more. North Carolina has not been hit with a Cat 3 or higher since Fran, which does not mean a three, four or five will arrive this season. It does mean that, statistically, North Carolina has been riding a long lucky streak.
The odds of that streak lasting indefinitely are slim to none.