September 1, 2011

As I write this, electric power is just now returning in the last remaining North Carolina neighborhoods darkened by Hurricane Irene’s pole-cracking winds last weekend. Chainsaws are still buzzing, landfills are just beginning to be overrun with truckloads of debris, and people flooded out of their homes are returning, exhausted from the ordeal. Hatteras Island, isolated by those infamous breaches of Highway 12, has a long recovery ahead. Across the east, cleanup is in full swing. For many it’s simply another case of “here we go again.”

I realize how fortunate I am to have suffered no damages during Irene. Like most of my neighbors, we had a day’s worth of work to haul away limbs from our yard, but that was it. No trees on the house, no water in the garage, no steamy, week-long character test without lights and air-conditioning. It could have been so much worse in our community. But it was much worse in neighborhoods across nine states, and my heart extends to those who are suffering because of it.

There are lots of ways we can help. The Red Cross, The Salvation Army and many other relief organizations are already on the ground across the east, and they can use your support and assistance. Governor Perdue has established a relief fund, as have local churches, banks, and many other worthy charities that are focused on funneling help to those who need it most. You can even donate to several charities by simply sending a text message. Be generous. It might be you next time.


Last year when Hurricane Earl was spinning toward the Carolinas with 145 mph winds, I was thinking about my roof. Actually, I’d been thinking about it all that summer. You could tell by looking at the curling shingles that it needed replacement. The house was built in 1990, so it was time. But there’s always risk, I thought, that a storm could roll in just as the roofing contractors were rolling out. I decided to hold off. So did Earl.

The dangerous cyclone curved away from land just in time. Its western wall brushed the Outer Banks on September 3, but we were all spared a direct hit.

This summer, though, the work would need to be done. It started with a good trimming of all the large limbs that dangled over the house. Though the tree work and the new roof would cost a small fortune, I knew it just couldn’t wait any longer.

After getting a few quotes, I hired Jeff Willis of Morehead City, who has seen his share of coastal roofs. And like me, he’s fascinated with all things hurricane. We had good conversations about his family’s experiences, including storms in Florida. We swapped hurricane tales for a while, I gave him a book, and his men proceeded to replace two skylights and install Owens-Corning’s best.

I’ve always noticed people really enjoy talking about hurricanes. Ask almost anyone, and they’ll gladly tell you their hurricane tale. Over the years I’ve collected some great stories from people I’ve met during my lectures and book events. Some are tragic, some entertaining. But all together they present a rich mosaic of what hurricanes and the threat of disaster mean in our lives.

It’s also fairly common to cross paths with friends and acquaintances along the aisles of Food Lion and have them ask, “So, Jay, do you think this is going to be a bad year for storms?” Normally, and for the last twenty years, my answer has always been the same. “I really don’t make predictions, but I do follow the guidance from forecasters.”

But this summer, I had a different response: “Normally I wouldn’t make predictions, but I think we might get one this year. I just put a new roof on my house.”

So with that lame prediction, the 2011 hurricane season got underway.

Hurricane Irene became worrisome when it passed on the north side of Puerto Rico and moved into the eastern Bahamas. For all interests on the U.S. East Coast, the warm waters of that region are a danger zone for mid-season hurricanes. That’s precisely the area where Hurricanes Floyd and Isabel briefly spun into Cat 5 territory. Hugo and Fran passed through those waters too.

Like most everyone else, I kept up with the forecasts online. Not that I don’t enjoy the banter and perspective of the local news team, but web resources available today are impressive. A lot of people are becoming savvy too, in their appreciation for the various “spaghetti” computer model forecasts on display. Five years ago, hardly anyone knew what a GFDL was. Just last week while waiting in line at the hardware store I overheard someone comparing the past performance of these models. We’ve come a long way with the science, and also with our understanding of the nuance—for my part of the Carolina coast, a slight shift east or west makes all the difference in the world.

Once it became apparent that Irene was indeed going to strike, the local knowledge of our stations (in my case, WCTI, WITN and WNCT) became the best source for region-specific forecasts and current information. Broadcast media is so often ridiculed in their coverage of hurricane events. I take the opposite view. The tireless and sometimes courageous work of these folks should be better appreciated.

I was asked to take part in several media interviews during the three days of Irene’s visit. A common question from reporters seemed to be, “How does Irene compare with other hurricanes from the past?”

It’s always tempting to draw comparisons, and usually I can find some past storm to add perspective. In reality, though, each hurricane is unique in the ways it impacts a community or a region. The key variables—size, intensity, symmetry, track, and forward speed—make each hurricane experience different from all others. At one point, Irene was forecast to strike North Carolina as a Category 3 and track across the eastern counties and exit off the Virginia coast. So comparisons with Hurricane Donna (September 1960) might have seemed appropriate. But as Irene weakened and made landfall near Cape Lookout as a Category 1, other storms came to mind.

After a quick search through my own book, I began to draw parallels with Hurricane Connie, a storm that hit the same area in August 1955. Like Irene, Connie was a very large hurricane that weakened before landfall. And, also like Irene, Connie entrained dry air as it approached our coast, causing it to become lopsided and wobbly. The eye of the storm zigged and zagged its way ashore, where it slowed and flooded the same eastern North Carolina cities and counties impacted by Irene. Connie was only the beginning of a long season in ’55, as Diane and Ione would soon follow—giving North Carolina three land-falling hurricanes within a six week period.

As bad as the flooding and wind damage in our state turned out to be, Irene may be best remembered for its record-breaking floods across the Northeast. Unlike here, where drought has plagued our region, states like Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey had just experienced their wettest August on record. Having Irene wash through with an additional foot of rain was just too much for them. Vermont is not a state that’s often mentioned in conversations about hurricanes, at least not until this past week. The destruction is still being tallied, of course, but it’s a fair bet that Irene will end up on the list of the nation’s top ten most costly weather disasters.

Here in North Carolina, the storm had far broader impacts than one might expect from a Cat 1 storm. In many communities residents made direct comparisons with Isabel (September 2003), and some rated Irene “like a Fran and a Floyd rolled together.” When it’s all over, we’ll see that Irene wasn’t as deadly or as costly as those two events, but it will long be remembered by area residents nevertheless. And it will no doubt provide residents with countless new hurricane stories to tell.

Jay Barnes is director of development for the North Carolina Aquarium Society. He has worked with the Aquariums since 1980, and he was director of the Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores for more than twenty years. He is author of several books and articles on hurricanes, including North Carolina’s Hurricane History, Florida’s Hurricane History, and (with Richard Moore) Faces From the Flood: Hurricane Floyd Remembered. Barnes lives in Pine Knoll Shores, N.C.  Visit the author’s Hurricane website.