Tropical systems bring a variety of impacts. Depending on the system and your family and property's specific risks, some of the impacts may be modest. Others may be severe.
Tropical systems get labels ("tropical storm", "Category 2 Hurricane", etc.) based on one single metric: their maximum sustained winds.
Obviously, wind-based labels have some utility but, equally obviously, the true caliber of a storm goes way past its sustained winds. That's why a single, simple label (especially those from the Cat. 1-5 Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Rating Scale) will hardly ever tell you a tropical system's whole story.
Hurricane Florence of September 2018 was a classic case of why you should judge a storm not by its category or label, but by its impacts. History will correctly tag Florence as a relatively minimal Category 1 storm since it featured maximum sustained winds of “only” 90 mph at its Wrightsville Beach landfall.
But, across the Carolinas, Florence killed at least 30 people and inflicted more than $20B in damage. And in the Cape Fear Region, Florence will be remembered as one of the worst - if not the worst - hurricanes of all time.
Florence was also a large and excruciatingly slow-moving storm that approached the coast at a particularly perilous 90-degree angle.
Florence, like no other storm in Cape Fear Region history, showed how there’s so much more to a hurricane than its Saffir-Simpson category. So please be a savvy weather consumer and, next time a storm threatens, look to your First Alert Weather Team to go past these often deceptive storm labels and into specific, impact-based forecasts! We’ll have you covered!
WHAT IS A RIP CURRENT? A rip current is a narrow channel of swift outbound water within a surf zone. A rip current's flow can exceed six feet per second – vigorous enough to overpower even a strong shore-bound swimmer. Though rip currents tend to form amid patterns of aggressive onshore winds and swell, rip currents can form every day and every beach – especially near piers, jetties, and sandbars.
HOW CAN YOU SPOT A RIP CURRENT? Spotting rip currents can be tricky but, in general, you want to look for persistent gaps or interruptions in a prevailing breaking wave pattern. The water in a rip may be frothy or discolored. Lifeguards will place cautionary flags on stretches of beach vulnerable to rip currents. Yellow and red flags indicate a moderate to high risk of rip currents, respectively. Always heed the advice of lifeguards!
HOW CAN YOU ESCAPE A RIP CURRENT? If a rip current begins to pull you away from the shore, resist the urge to panic, flail, or fight the current – you will quickly become exhausted and you may drown! Rather, simply swim parallel to the beach. You might be pulled away from shore as you do, but remember: rip currents are narrow – generally only a few yards wide. You will quickly escape the rip's grip and, once you no longer feel its outbound tug, you will be free to swim shoreward.
HOW DO HURRICANES RELATE TO RIP CURRENTS? All hurricanes offer the wind and ocean swells on the large scale that can fuel rip currents at the local scale. As a rule, the Carolinas' most prolific hurricane-related rip current episodes occur:
Hurricane Lorenzo of 2019 pegged all of the above. In late September, Lorenzo reached monstrous Category 5 strength as it steamed westward from Africa's Cape Verde Islands. And even though Lorenzo failed to come within 2000 miles of the United States before reversing course, its intense swells triggered a deadly rip current outbreak along the Carolina Coast in early October. The sun was shining and the early autumn air and water were still warm, but rip currents from Hurricane Lorenzo were inflicting grave harm.
HOW CAN YOU LEARN EACH DAY'S RIP CURRENT RISK? Every day, your First Alert Weather Team publishes a rip current risk outlook as part of the BEACH FORECAST - which you can find on-demand at wect.com/weather. You can also regularly catch this forecast, as well as other helpful rip-current outlooks, on all other WECT broadcast, digital, and social media platforms. Keep it safe in the surf this Hurricane Season!
Imagine: a major hurricane is hours from striking you, but you have NO idea. In the not-too-distant past, this was the norm. Devastating Category 4 Hurricane Hazel, for example, struck the Cape Fear Region in October 1954 with little more than 12 hours of advanced notice.
Today, satellites and supercomputers have vastly improved hurricane forecasting and warning. But one of our age's best tools for communicating a hurricane threat, the National Hurricane Center's official forecast "cone of uncertainty", can be misrepresented and misunderstood.
Please consider these dos and don'ts when interpreting or analyzing a hurricane's forecast cone:
DO think of the cone as a collection of most likely tracks for the center of a particular tropical system.
DO NOT simply focus on the cone's centerline and dismiss its edges as unreasonable track outcomes. In a hurricane forecast situation, your First Alert Weather Team will share with you a range of most likely storm tracks and purposefully omit the centerline of a cone's display.
DO consider that a hurricane's effects are often felt well outside the bounds of its forecast cone.
DO NOT think "outside the cone" is equivalent to "all clear". Strong winds, flooding rains, and dangerous surf regularly occur dozens or hundreds of miles from a storm's center. Trust your First Alert Weather Team to not only analyze a particular storm's track but also what such a track means in terms of real, tangible impacts.
DO stay alert for updated storm information. The National Hurricane Center releases new forecast cones four times a day.
DO NOT "eyeball" a storm's path beyond the official 5-day cone; be patient and wait for the cone to become relevant to the eastern Carolinas.
DO expect revisions to official forecast track cones. Subtle changes to the evolution of Pacific weather systems – yes, systems half a world away – often impart significant changes to the behavior of storms in the tropical Atlantic. New National Hurricane Center forecast cones can reflect these changes.
DO NOT approach the revised information with a cynical or dismissive attitude. Rather, be ready to take the changes in-stride – staying with your First Alert Weather Team for full updates all the way!
WHERE CAN YOU FIND THE "CONE OF UNCERTAINTY" FOR A PARTICULAR STORM?
The short answer is: everywhere. These images saturate the mainstream media. What you'll get when you view a cone with a First Alert Weather product is:
Hurricanes can threaten you physically and tax you mentally. Whether you're new to the Cape Fear Region or you're a life-long resident, your First Alert Weather Team urges you to follow these rules for Hurricane Season.
1. STAY ALERT
We live here and we get it: the rhythm of summer. It can lull you! The balmy air, the mellow breezes, the slow roll of an afternoon thundershower... If you're living right, your toughest decision in a day might be "pool vs. beach" or "burger vs. dog."
But all the while... the ocean is warming, energizing, and becoming more conducive for hurricanes. Don't let a storm surprise you! Your First Alert Weather Team will keep you informed of any and all developing systems… all season long.
2. HAVE A KIT
"An obvious rule," you might say. But it must be said. In an emergency weather situation, freshwater, food, and medicine are not "wants" or "it'd be nice if we hads." They're NEEDS.
Rule 1 and Rule 2 are close cousins. Staying vigilant and prepared are the best ways to ensure your stress level doesn't spike from 0 to 100 in a hurricane situation. Your WECT Weather App offers continuous forecast updates, interactive storm tracking, and a complete hurricane preparedness guide all season long.
3. UPDATE YOUR STORM PLAN OFTEN
Closely examine your family's storm kit and plan with every new Hurricane Season. Property vulnerabilities, dietary needs, prescription drug regimens, pet considerations, and evacuation routes can all change year to year and may require some calibration.
4. BE PATIENT
Understand that the average life span of a hurricane – from inception to dissipation – is one to three weeks. The responsible answer to the question "Will the hurricane hit us?" is very often "It is too soon to know."
"Cape Verde hurricanes" are some of the greatest tests in patience. These storms form near Africa's Cape Verde Islands and typically take more than 15 days to cross the ocean! In almost all Cape Verde hurricane situations, meteorologists won't be able to say how the storm might affect North America until the storm navigates the Caribbean Islands. Patience is key!
5. UNDERSTAND THE "CONE OF UNCERTAINTY"
For every potential and active tropical cyclone (i.e. a tropical depression, tropical storm, or hurricane) that forms in the Atlantic, experienced and accredited meteorologists with the National Hurricane Center issue an official forecast cone and update it regularly.
Tab up to the "UNDERSTANDING THE 'CONE OF UNCERTAINTY'" section of this page for full details. Learn the cone and live by the cone.
6. RELY ON FORECASTS, NOT MODELS
Every Hurricane Season, media bursts with both storm forecasts and storm models. Though these products often resemble one another, credible forecasts are almost always more accurate, actionable, and reliable than raw models posted without context.
Models are digital storm simulations. Each day, scores of models – each with a different mix of atmospheric math – develop scenarios for the evolution of storms. On any given summer or fall day, you can probably find one computer model depicting a major hurricane slamming the Carolinas ...and a similar model that leaves the coast clear.
Forecasts are crafted by meteorological professionals who understand the patterns of the atmosphere and, quite importantly, the strengths, weaknesses, and biases of the computer models. Are human forecasts perfect? Of course not! But they are statistically more accurate and vastly more consistent than unrefined computer models.
Trust your First Alert Weather Team to deliver the highest quality forecasts from the National Hurricane Center – with perspective for the Cape Fear Region – all season long.
7. FOCUS ON FORECAST IMPACTS, NOT LABELS
Consider two scenarios… A Cat. 1 Hurricane will affect the Cape Fear Region. A Cat. 3 Hurricane will affect the Cape Fear Region. Now consider the question… Which scenario is worse? "The Cat. 3!" you might say. But a better answer is, "I can't say for sure."
Hurricane categories only account for a storm's maximum sustained winds – nothing else. And while winds are important, they're far from the only indicator of storm severity.
So, in a storm situation, it's okay to ask… "What category is it up to?" But you should also be asking things like…
Questions like these look past categories and labels. They focus on impacts. In every storm situation, trust your First Alert Weather Team to answer questions like these with impact-based forecasts.
8. AVOID PROVOCATIVE SOCIAL MEDIA STORM CONTENT
These days, you can find hurricane maps and related "hot takes" almost anywhere: websites, message boards, social media, etc. When you see such content, ask yourself, "Is it painting a calm, nuanced, measured picture of a storm threat? Or does it seem unnecessarily flashy, as if designed to elicit a cheap, emotional response?"
Consider this scenario: the 8 a.m. run of the GFS computer forecast model generates a Cat. 3 Hurricane that will smack the Carolina Coast in seven days, while the 8 p.m. run of the same model fails to generate a hurricane at all.
Which image do you think would "go viral" on social media? The landfalling hurricane, of course!
Sadly, the most shocking and frightful hurricane claims are usually trendiest on social media ...even if they rarely verify. Trust your First Alert Weather Team to refrain from sensationalism.
9. STICK WITH ACCREDITED SOURCES
Only trust, share and heed storm information from accredited meteorologists and related officials who put their names and faces on their products.
We are YOUR First Alert Weather Team. We live, shop, worship, and raise our families locally and we are thankful for every day where we can earn and/or keep your trust.
10. DON'T PANIC!
You're cool with rules 1-9, right? Then this one should work for you, too! Positive, constructive energy always beats unfocused anxiety.
FOR MY HURRICANE KIT AND PLAN... WHERE DO I START?
Assess your family and property's risk to wind and water. Then, click on the "Free Downloads" tab for a full, printable preparedness guide from which to develop your kit and plan.
HOW DOES A TROPICAL WAVE OF LOW PRESSURE BECOME A HURRICANE?
Hurricanes are low-pressure systems that can form whenever thunderstorms are allowed to converge over warm, energizing water (80 degrees F or higher), and upper-level winds do not disrupt the organization process.
Meteorologists may first identify a tropical wave of low pressure amid a cluster of loosely organized tropical thunderstorms. On occasion, the National Hurricane Center may classify such a feature as a potential tropical cyclone if intensification appears imminent or threatening. A tropical wave that develops a closed center or wind circulation of less than 39 mph will get the tag of a tropical depression. If such a feature were to ramp its winds to between 39 and 73 mph, it would become a named tropical storm. A hurricane is the strongest kind of tropical cyclone. A hurricane utilizes feeder bands to focus energy around its eye; maximum sustained winds within its eye wall are 74 mph or greater.
HOW OFTEN TO TROPICAL STORMS AND HURRICANES STRIKE THE CAPE FEAR REGION?
With an average return period of under five years, tropical storms regularly strike the Cape Fear Region. Hurricanes are irregular visitors; their return period is between five and ten years. Major (Cat. 3+) hurricanes have a return period of 20 years. The last letter-of-the-law major hurricane to make landfall in the Cape Fear Region was Fran of 1996.
WHAT IS THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO FOR A HURRICANE IN THE CAPE FEAR REGION?
The answer may vary by impact:
Winds are worst in high category storms like 3s, 4s, and 5s, but gusts may vary.
Rainfall and freshwater flooding are worst in large and slow-moving storms.
Storm surge inundation is amplified in storms that make a direct hit versus a brush.
Tornadoes occur in storms that show their right-forward side of their circulations.
Hazel of October of 1954 fit most of these frames and, as storied a hurricane history as the Cape Fear Region has, remains a benchmark storm.
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A HURRICANE "WATCH" AND A "WARNING"?
If a hurricane becomes especially threatening, it may prompt "watch" or "warning" bulletins. A Hurricane Watch, for example, means hurricane conditions are possible within 48 to 72 hours. The National Hurricane Center will replace such a bulletin with a Hurricane Warning if hurricane conditions appear likely within 24 to 48 hours. Similar watch = possible / soon and warning = likely / very soon breakdowns carry across other tropical items like tropical storms and storm surge. Your WECT Weather App will notify you about any and all such bulletins if the situation warrants!
WILL MY COMMUNITY BE EVACUATED FOR A HURRICANE?
Evacuation criteria vary according to the vulnerabilities of each municipality of the Cape Fear Region.
Most beach and barrier island communities will issue mandatory evacuation orders if wind and/or storm surge impacts are expected to reach particularly dangerous levels.
For the most part, the decision to evacuate is made at the family level. Talk about your risk, and your aversion thereof, and make a careful plan ahead of time.
WHERE DO I GO TO EVACUATE?
If you opt to evacuate for an approaching hurricane, your direction of travel should hinge on the forecast track of the storm.
Most hurricanes approach southeastern North Carolina directly from the south (like Hazel of 1954, Fran of 1996, and Floyd of 1999). In these events, the ideal evacuation route is a westbound route like I-40 west, US-74 west, US-76 west, and US-17 south to US-378 west (in the case of southwestern Brunswick County).
Occasionally, hurricanes approach the Carolinas more directly from the east (like Hugo of 1989, Isabel of 2003, and Florence of 2018). In these rarer cases, a north or southbound mode of evacuation may be more appropriate (I-40 west to I-95 north, US-17 north or south, US-421 west, and NC-87 north or south).
WHEN DO BRIDGES AND FERRIES CLOSE?
Emergency personnel usually close bridges to and from the barrier islands of the Cape Fear Region when sustained winds are expected to reach tropical storm-force (roughly 40 mph or greater). The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, Isabel Holmes Bridge, the Southport-Fort Fisher Ferry, and the Bald Head Island Ferry have similar thresholds, but closures may vary.
WHERE CAN YOU SHELTER PETS?
Counties offer select pet-friendly shelters, many of which you can find in our printable guide. Keep in mind: very few setups will allow you co-shelter with your pet. Animals are usually housed separately.
ARE SANDBAGS RIGHT FOR ME? HOW DO I USE THEM?
If you feel your home or business may be impacted by minor storm surge flooding or up to two feet of freshwater/river flooding, sandbags may be right for you.
Most home improvement centers carry sandbag kits. Fill half to two-thirds of each bag with sand or fine soil and stack.
WHAT SHOULD I DO IF MY CAR GETS STRANDED IN FLOODWATERS?
As little as six inches of moving water can lift and carry a vehicle off a roadway. If you can at all: refrain from traveling in hurricane situations where flooding is even a possibility. But, if you must travel, stay alert and follow the mantra "turn around, don't drown" to avoid any chance of becoming mired in floodwaters. If water begins to rise around your vehicle, call emergency services immediately and follow their instructions.
Tropical wave: a broad, generally disorganized axis of relatively low air pressure over tropical waters. "We will keep a close eye on a tropical wave just west of Africa as it has a chance to organize and strengthen in the coming days."
HOW DOES CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACT HURRICANES?
No single hurricane's behavior hinges on climate change, but there is evidence the frequency of more impactful hurricanes is increasing with a warming trend in the tropical Atlantic Ocean. Data suggests Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes have become much greater and more efficient rainfall producers in the last 50 years.