Be wary of these NC natural wonders this summer

Be wary of these NC natural wonders

Find out what potential dangers you should watch out for in North Carolina.
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Find out what potential dangers you should watch out for in North Carolina.

From the highest mountain in eastern North America to its 300 miles of coastline, North Carolina is blessed with natural beauty across its 560-mile length. But what captivates can also kill the unsuspecting.

Some dangers are obvious, or so you would think. Others can be as tiny and inconspicuous as a grain of rice.

What you won't see on this list are predators that, despite their real dangers, rarely mount fatal attacks. Black bears killed two people in the Tennessee mountains, both near the N.C. line, in 2000 and 2006. Charlotte's Carolinas Poison Center got 71 snakebite calls in a single month, April 2017, but none were fatal (a S.C. man died after a rattlesnake bite in 2016). South Carolina had 10 shark attacks in 2017, but no fatalities were reported anywhere in the U.S.

Sometimes trouble, instead, begins with a slip on a mossy stone or a walk in the woods. Here's how to stay safe this summer.


The wonder: Hundreds of waterfalls plunging from mountainsides into misty pools, cool even on the hottest days, draw throngs of visitors.

What can kill you: Accidental falls. Dozens of people have plunged to their deaths from North Carolina's waterfalls in recent decades, often after ignoring warning signs.

Thirteen people have died since 1993 at the 411-foot Whitewater Falls, the highest waterfall in the eastern U.S. Fifteen have died in the past 20 years at Elk River Falls in Avery County, including the latest victim, an Ohio man who slipped and was pulled under water last month by strong currents despite heroic efforts to save him.

A South Carolina man, John Shaffer, 42, of Charleston, died Saturday when he jumped in the waters above Rainbow Falls near Brevard to try to rescue his dog and was swept over the waterfall.

How to survive:

  • Keep a respectful distance from waterfalls.

  • Pay attention to warning signs and stay on established trails.

  • Don't climb around falls and never play in the water above one, where rocks can be slick and it’s easy to lose your balance. Currents can be very swift even farther upstream from waterfalls.

  • Never jump off waterfalls or dive into the plunge pools at their bases. Hidden rocks and logs can be submerged and pools have swirling currents that can drag and keep you underwater. Conditions change constantly.

Source: U.S. Forest Service

Rip currents

The wonder: Crashing surf at dozens of beaches on North Carolina's southern coast and on the Outer Banks.

What can kill you: Drowning in powerful channels of water that flow quickly away from shore. Rip currents most often occur at low spots or breaks in sandbars and near structures such as jetties and piers. They’re strongest when the surf is heaviest.

North Carolina is second only to Florida for rip current deaths on the East Coast. Rip currents killed 12 people on North Carolina beaches in 2017 and 11 in 2016, the National Weather Service says. Emerald Isle police reported rescuing more than 80 people in a 12-day period last June, but four victims died.

How to survive:

  • Check daily beach forecasts before going in the water and heed warning signs.

  • If caught in a current, relax and float instead of trying to fight it.

  • Don’t swim against the current, which only exhausts victims.

  • Swim in a direction following the shoreline, or float or tread water until you're out of the current.

  • If unable to escape the current, face the shore and call or wave for help.

Source: National Weather Service

Rip currents are powerful, narrow channels of fast-moving water and can be deadly if you don't know what to do. This video from NOAA Ocean Today shows you how to survive if you are caught in one off the coast.


The wonder: Once decimated, about 1 million white-tailed deer again roam North Carolina.

What can kill you: Vehicle-deer collisions. Fourteen people died in North Carolina after vehicle collisions with animals — 90 percent of them deer — from 2014 through 2016, the N.C. Department of Transportation says. Mecklenburg ranked fifth-highest among counties with 1,333 of the state's nearly 54,000 total crashes.

Crashes can anytime, including in the summer, but are most likely in October through December, when deer are on the move to mate and evade hunters, and most frequent in early evening (about 5-10 p.m.) and early morning (5-7 a.m.).

How to survive:

  • Slow down in heavily wooded areas, specially in late afternoon and evening, and near bridges or overpasses where collisions often occur.

  • At night, drive with headlights on high beam and watch for eyes reflecting the light.

  • Because deer often travel in groups, don't assume the road is clear if only one deer passes.

  • Don't swerve to avoid hitting a deer, which can cause your vehicle to flip and may confuse the deer where to run.

  • Give one long blast of your car's horn if you see a deer in the road.

Source: N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission


The wonder: Anywhere outdoors in the Southeast in summer.

What can kill you: Giant sparks of electricity that can reach temperatures of 50,000 degrees, hotter than the sun's surface. North Carolina sees more than 400,000 cloud-to-ground flashes a year.

Lightning kills 47 Americans a year and injures hundreds more, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says. Two people died after being struck by lightning in North Carolina last year, and two more were killed in 2016. The 12 N.C. fatalities in the decade 2005-2014 ranked seventh-highest in the U.S. and behind only Florida and Georgia in the Southeast.

How to survive:

  • Get inside a safe building (one with electricity or plumbing to channel strikes) or vehicle when thunderstorms are around.

  • Avoid open fields and the tops of hills or ridges.

  • Stay away from tall, isolated trees or other tall objects. In a forest, stay near a lower stand of trees.

  • In a group, spread out to avoid the current traveling between group members.

  • If camping in an open area, set up in a valley, ravine or other low area. A tent offers no protection from lightning.

  • Stay away from water, wet items such as ropes and metal objects such as fences and poles. Water and metal don't attract lightning but conduct electricity.

Source: National Weather Service

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Blue Ridge Parkway

The wonder: Long-range mountain views from America's most-visited national park unit.

What can kill you: Motor vehicle accidents and falls. More than 250 miles of the 469-mile parkway wind through North Carolina, and 16 million visitors toured it in 2017. But despite its soothing 45 mph speed limit and sweeping curves, the parkway isn't a place to relax behind the wheel.

Nine people died in parkway traffic accidents last year, and three more from falls and other emergencies. A Mars Hill man died last year when his car plunged down a steep embankment north of Asheville. Even the low stone walls encircling the 250 overlooks don't make them accident-proof. An 83-year-old Virginia woman fell when she tried to get a better look at the scenery from an overlook in Haywood County last year.

The Linn Cove Viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Grandfather Mountain. File photo

How to survive:

  • Watch your speed — steep downhill grades can increase it more than you expect.

  • Beware of narrow road shoulders that in some places have forests right next to the pavement.

  • Don't let mountain views, wildlife and wildflowers distract your driving.

  • Know that the parkway's gentle curves leave limited sight distances.

  • Be careful in steering through hazardous curves that may get tighter as drivers go through them.
  • Make sure your RV can squeeze under the 26 tunnels, most of them south of Asheville.

Source: National Park Service

Raw oysters

The wonder: The salty succulence of native shellfish that taste like the water they grew in.

What can kill you: Vibrio vulnificus, a naturally-occurring bacteria found in seawater that can infect people who eat filter feeders such as raw oysters. Most cases occur in the summer months, when the bacteria multiply in warm water.

About a dozen Vibrio species can make people sick, the CDC says, with most of the 80,000 cases a year resulting in severe diarrhea and vomiting after eating raw oysters. But one species, Vibrio vulnificus, can do much worse damage. Although the CDC reports only about 200 infections each year, more than one-third of patients die.

The bacteria can cause skin infections after an open wound is exposed to brackish or saltwater, or bloodstream infections that bring on blistering skin lesions and are sometimes fatal. Limb amputation is sometimes needed to remove dead or infected tissue. Twenty-seven N.C. residents were infected by Vibrio vulnificus between 1999 to 2003, the state Department of Environmental Quality reports, 70 percent of them from wound infections but some from raw oysters.

How to survive:

  • Don't eat raw or undercooked oysters or other shellfish. It's impossible to tell if an oyster carries the bacteria by looking at it.

  • Wash your hands after handling raw shellfish.

  • Stay out of saltwater or brackish water if you have a wound such as a cut or scrape, or cover the area with a waterproof bandage.

  • Wash wounds and cuts thoroughly if they've been exposed to seawater or raw shellfish.

  • People with immune problems or liver conditions are at most risk. If your health makes you a risk, wear clothes and shoes that protect you from cuts or scrapes when in brackish or saltwater. Wear gloves when handling raw seafood.

Source: CDC

Fire ants

The wonder: Open, sunny areas across eastern and southeastern North Carolina.

What can kill you: Stinging, biting ants that are natives of Brazil but are spreading across the state and the Southeast. Thousands of fire ants live in a single mound, and if disturbed they quickly attack.

A 1989 survey of physicians documented 32 deaths from fire ants in the Southeast and Texas. The CDC estimates 90 to 100 people in the U.S. die of allergic reactions to insect stings each year. While most attacks are simply painful and itchy for up to a week, some victims are highly allergic to fire ant stings, as others are to bee and wasp stings. A life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis can cause shock, breathing problems and a drop in blood pressure.

How to survive:

  • Don't disturb fire ant mounds.

  • If attacked, remove ants from your skin with a fast brushing motion.

  • Don't try to shake or rinse them off with water.

  • Quickly strip off shoes, socks and clothing near the ants and carefully reinspect them before putting them back on.

  • Be alert to signs of allergic reaction, which may include swelling of the face, eyes, lips and throat, constriction of the airway, a weak and rapid pulse, nausea and dizziness.

Source: Texas A&M University


The wonder: North Carolina's wealth of wildlife, including 121 mammal species from armadillos to red wolves.

What can kill you: A fatal disease that affects only mammals. Sixty to 70 dogs and about 250 cats are reported rabid in the U.S. each year, most of them infected by encounters with rabid wildlife such as bats, raccoons and skunks. Between July 2017 and mid-June of this year, 116 raccoons, 60 skunks and 42 foxes tested positive for rabies in North Carolina.

Human deaths from rabies have steadily declined in the U.S. since the 1970s, the CDC says, but two of the 23 fatal cases in the past decade occurred in the Carolinas. In 2011, a 20-year-old North Carolina man died of a rabies variant associated with raccoons, while a 46-year-old woman in South Carolina from a type that occurs in bats.

raccoon trimmed take two.JPG
A raccoon. Woody Marshall

How to survive:

  • Keep your pet's rabies vaccine up to date and report any encounters with wildlife to your veterinarian.

  • Avoid bare-hands contact with any wildlife, dead or alive.

  • Avoid animals showing unnatural behavior, such as being unusually friendly.

  • Feed pets indoors and animal-proof trash cans that can attract wild animals.

  • Report to animal control strays that may not be vaccinated and run high risks of exposure to wild animals.

Source: American Humane


The wonder: The drama of crashing surf, whistling winds and swaying trees as tropical storms near the coast.

What can kill you: Storm surges and flooding from heavy rain associated with those storms. North Carolina's long coastline gets direct strikes about every two years, the N.C. Climate Office reports. Storms that don't make landfall but still affect the state occur nearly twice a year. Hurricane season began June 1 and runs through November.

The National Hurricane Center says 25 people died in North Carolina in 2016 from Hurricane Matthew, which spread inland after pummeling the South Carolina coast. Nineteen of the deaths occurred when people drove or walked into floodwaters and were swept away by swift currents. Four more died in the state from Hurricane Irene in 2011.

How to survive:

  • Never try to drive through floodwater or go around barriers blocking flooded roads.

  • Assemble an emergency kit with items including flashlights, bottled water and generators.
  • Leave if ordered to evacuate. Don't wait.

  • Let someone outside the evacuation zone know of your plans.

  • Include pets in your plan.

Source: National Weather Service


The wonder: Woods and brushy areas statewide.

What can kill you: Blacklegged (or deer) ticks.

Cases of disease such as the Zika and West Nile viruses from mosquito, tick and flea bites more than tripled from 2004 to 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. Ticks account for more than 75 percent of those diseases, notably Lyme disease from blacklegged ticks. North Carolina reported 9,075 cases of tick-borne diseases in that period and 240 probable cases of Lyme disease in 2016. Lyme patients treated with antibiotics normally recover, but the infection can cause fatal heart problems.

How to survive:

  • Treat clothing and gear with products containing 0.5 percent permethrin or use EPA-certified insect repellants.

  • Walk in the center of trails and avoid high grass and leaf litter.

  • Back indoors, check your clothing, gear and pets for ticks.

  • Shower within two hours of coming in from outdoors.

  • Check under your arms, in and around the ears, belly button, back of the knees, hair, between legs and around the waist.

Source: CDC

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051; @bhender
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