Mark Washburn

Stay mindful of power packed by hurricanes

Flooding from Hurricane Isabel extended as far inland as Elizabeth City, where Angela Muirhead, left, carried her 2-year-old son, Conner, as she and Samantha Forbes walked through a flooded street on Friday, Sept. 19, 2003.
Flooding from Hurricane Isabel extended as far inland as Elizabeth City, where Angela Muirhead, left, carried her 2-year-old son, Conner, as she and Samantha Forbes walked through a flooded street on Friday, Sept. 19, 2003. Charlotte Observer file photo

It’s been more than a quarter century since we’ve been visited by a monster.

Hurricane Hugo, which tore through Charlotte in 1989, was our last big hurricane. Those who lived here will never forget it.

But I worry that with the explosive population growth since then, many of us are complacent about the threat that hurricanes pose this far inland.

And with the season’s first hurricane loose in the Caribbean, it’s time to remember some of our greatest hits.

Hurricane Hazel in 1954 was the storm that changed everything. It blasted ashore at the S.C.-N.C. state line at a time when coastal resorts were in their first boom years.

It was the strongest storm of its era, and came after a relative lull in the parade of storms. It killed 19 people and erased much of Long Beach.

Hazel got everyone’s attention, and just in time. During the 1955 hurricane season, three major storms slammed the coast.

Our hurricanes tend to be unique. They all have their quirks, their separate personalities, their special moves.

One of the oddest was Agnes in 1972. Storms get their strength from warm tropical waters, but Agnes moved through the Carolinas inland.

It came through Columbia and set sail for Nag’s Head. It dumped 10 inches of rain on the Blue Ridge Mountains, and unleashed tremendous flooding as far north as New York.

I remember Gloria in 1985. It was supposed to be a monster, but did relatively little damage.

Its eye, eight miles wide, took 37 minutes to pass over the weather station on Cape Hatteras. Forecasters there reported ear-popping headaches from the drop in barometric pressure during the eye’s passage.

Hugo was the most powerful storm to hit the continent in 20 years, the greatest since the heavyweight champion Camille ravaged the Gulf Coast in 1969.

It roared into Charleston, then raced through the night to snap Charlotte’s tree canopy like matchsticks. Charlotte lost 80,000 trees to its fury and power was out in places for weeks.

In South Carolina, 27 were killed; in North Carolina, seven died. In property damage, Hugo was the most destructive storm in history.

Floyd moved millions in 1999. It was a monster storm as it approached the East Coast and more than 2 million people evacuated in five coastal states. School was canceled as far west as Asheville as it bore down on the coast.

It lost power and came ashore at Cape Fear as a relatively mild Category 2 hurricane. But Floyd paused over the coastal plain, already saturated from Hurricane Dennis a few weeks earlier.

Floyd killed 57. Flooding was so extreme that authorities announced anyone moving east of Interstate 95 was taking their lives in their own hands.

We’ve been spared from monster storms for many years now. It’s important, though, to never forget their power. Because they will return.

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