These Natural Disasters Can Occur in North Carolina! Are You Prepared?

Natural disasters that occur in North Carolina

North Carolina isn’t a state that makes the news headlines too often, but when they do, it’s usually weather-related. The unfortunate thing is that it’s such a diverse state, that I wish they would make headlines for their beautiful natural resources too.

Take a mental road trip with me for a second. To the East, you have beaches where you can cool off on hot summer days. Drive a little inland and you’ll find a metropolis full of skyscrapers and nightlife.

Continue driving West, and you’re in the mountains, far above the ocean and the skyscrapers. From the mountain tops, you can see the Tar Heel State showing off its true magic. The valleys, flowers, and colorful trees are mesmerizing and unlike anything else you’ll see. 

Sadly, many things in this world are temporary. In a moment’s notice, North Carolina is prone to being swept away in sections, whether it be a tornado, a tidal surge, a wildfire, or another common natural hazard. The power of the Earth cannot be contained.

The disasters we face either make us or break us. Since you’re here, I’d like to think that you’re part of the resilient team that is ready to overcome an uncertain future. Welcome to the club!

What natural disasters does North Carolina have?

North Carolina’s most common natural disasters include tropical storms and hurricanes, severe storms, floods, wildfires, winter storms, tornadoes, landslides, and power outages. 

Between 1953 and 2019, North Carolina declared 65 major disasters, of which hurricanes and severe storms happened the most according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

1. Tropical Storms and Hurricanes

I have friends that live in Wilmington, North Carolina. When Hurricane Florence was forecasted, they noticed the eye of the storm was projected to pass right over their home.

They took shelter in a four-story brick building and we followed their entire experience over Facebook live. This was the closest I’ve been to experiencing the eye of a hurricane anywhere (I know, it’s nowhere near the real deal) but just seeing the live footage was insane!

Hurricanes, like many other disasters, carry immense power and the strength to produce significant damage within a short period of time. 

Hurricane season begins June 1st and lasts until November 30th.

The strongest and costliest hurricane to hit North Carolina was Hurricane Hazel. That’s a lot of records for one storm to hold, so you can imagine how severe the impact was.

Hurricane Hazel made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane on October 15, 1954. The coastline experienced massive flooding due to the 18 ft. storm surge. The lower East Coast was one of the hardest hit areas and experienced extensive damage— piers and homes were completely destroyed.

The total cost of damages was estimated to be $308 million, which included the partial or complete structural damage of 54,000 homes and the loss of 19 individuals. 

The deadliest disaster in North Carolina history was Hurricane Floyd in 1999. It killed 26 people.

Nor’easters are also a common thing to experience in the Tar Heel state. Nor’easters are powerful storms that bring in mass amounts of precipitation and high wind speeds.

The difference between a hurricane and a nor’easter is that a hurricane develops over warm air, while nor’easters thrive on cold air, so these storms are a threat between the colder months.

Nor’easters can occur any time that the temperatures favor it, but they’re most common between the months of September and April. 

When preparing for a hurricane or tropical cyclone, I would recommend budgeting for storm shutters or plywood that you can use to cover the windows of your home.

There are ways to secure your garage door and other vulnerable entrances of your home. The strong winds can become so powerful, that unless you strengthen your house with wind-resistant materials, you may end up facing a lot of damage and subsequent monetary loss.

If you’re ordered to evacuate, do so! Your home might not be the safest place during major hurricanes especially if you live along the coast.

Depending on the trajectory of the storm, sheltering-in-place might become more of a challenge and can put your life and your loved ones in grave danger.

For hurricane preparedness safety tips, make sure you check out this guide that discusses everything in much more detail. 

2. Severe Storms

Thunderstorms are somewhat common in North Carolina. Averaging at 40 to 50 storms each year, about 4 or 5 of those are considered severe. Lightning is a risk during the spring and summer months, especially because people spend a lot of time outdoors.

Strong thunderstorms can form and dissipate quickly, so be aware of the risks and don’t challenge Mother Nature. Large hail is also not uncommon in North Carolina— reports have shows hail of almost 2 inches in diameter! That’s bound to cause some damage.

Watching a developing storm in the distance might not sound like an unsafe thing to observe, but when lightning is involved, you’re putting yourself in a risky position.

Lightning travels very far and can strike as much as 10 miles outside of the storm clouds. The majority of people who get struck by lightning tend to be enjoying outdoor activities at the time when they’re hit.

Lightning usually strikes the highest point, but don’t rely on that idea since people are just as vulnerable. At the sound of thunder, seek shelter in a structure that has doors and walls.

A safe place to wait the storm out is in an interior room, such as a closet. Once the storm passes, you’re free to resume your outdoor fun. Just be sure you’re in the clear!

Find more severe weather safety tips here. 

3. Floods

North Carolina has many peaks and mountains, but that doesn’t make it any less susceptible to general flooding and flash flooding. In fact, half of the state lies at an elevation between sea level and 500 feet, making the flood risks pretty high.

The regions near the rivers as well as coastal or low-lying areas are much more vulnerable to flooding. Hurricane surges are known to cause mass flooding in the coastal areas.

Hurricane Florence broke many records, in terms of precipitation and flood level. Some parts of North Carolina received up to 30 inches of rainfall within days. This caused major rivers to overflow, and the nearby cities to become covered in water. 

One of the worst floods in the history of the state was the Great Flood of 1916. Two back-to-back tropical storms brought heavy rains to the state.

One of the storms recorded 22.22 inches of rain within a 24-hour period! The rivers were already full from the first storm, so when the second storm hit, the rivers overflowed, structures and roads flooded, and a lot of the infrastructure was destroyed.

It’s unknown how many people perished as a result, but we know that the estimated cost reached $21 million at that time. 

Floods are not just destructive to property but they can develop currents, making them dangerous for people. Trying to cross floodwaters is a bad idea, so your goal in preparing for a flood is to leave any high-risk areas long before the floodwaters get to it.

North Carolinians should look out for heavy precipitation in the forecast, including hurricane watches and severe storms.

If the National Weather Service issues a flood watch, this should be your cue to begin evacuation procedures.

If a flood warning is issued, your risk level is much higher and you should find higher ground as soon as possible. Do not attempt to cross flood waters.

In this guide, you can find more tips on how to become prepared for floods and flash floods in your area. 

4. Wildfires

North Carolina has seen some devastating fires in its history— the leading cause is the careless burning of debris, however some of the other initiators include lightning strikes, droughts, dry conditions, uncontrolled campfires, and arson. These fires spread quickly as a result of high winds. 

Statistics show that more than half of the population of North Carolina, or about 4.8 million people, live in areas that are at a high risk of wildfires.

Even though wildfires can occur at any time, considering that the conditions are right, the wildfire season is officially from mid-October through mid-December, so those months are especially risky. 

Wildfire prevention starts in knowing how to control a fire if you build one. For instance, if you have a camping bonfire or are burning debris, do not let it get out of your control.

You should never walk away from the fire and keep a fire extinguisher with you, especially on windy days. Wildfires that are due to the weather, such as lightning strikes, are not in your control.

What is in your control, however, is how you maintain your property. In many cases, people have saved their homes because they had cleared out the dry leaves, bushes, and overhanging tree branches prior to the threat of a fire.

Do what is in your control to prevent a fire from affecting your home. Then, develop an action plan in the event that you have to evacuate if the fire gets too close.

Be sure to review your action plan a few times each year and include everyone in your household in the process so you can all be on the same page if that day comes.

For more mitigation and safety tips on wildfires, check out this guide. 

5. Winter Storms

Winter weather primarily affects the northwestern part of North Carolina, however, that doesn’t mean that the rest of the state is completely off the hook.

Snow, freezing rain, sleet, ice storms, and cold temperatures are known to occur anywhere in the state, but these occurrences are fairly rare. The snowiest place in the state, Beech Mountain, averages 42 inches of snow a year, however, the rest of the state averages 5 inches. 

The worst blizzard that the state experienced happened on March 1st and 2nd in 1980. High-speed winds, combined with an average of 22 to 30 inches of state-wide snow caused many cities to shut down completely for several days. The blizzard cost over $22 million in damages and losses, as well as 13 known deaths. 

In order to prepare for a winter storm, you should winterize your home and your vehicle. Commuting is one of the main challenges during snow and ice storms, but people have to drive regardless.

I recommend optimizing your car’s emergency kit with extra items to keep you warm and dry, such as wool blankets, Mylar blankets, hand warmers, an extra change of winter clothes, and a rain poncho.

In the event of an emergency, say you become stranded, at least you’ll have a means to stay warm. If you don’t end up using anything from the kit, you lose nothing. But if you end up needing something from the kit and fail to have it, you’re in trouble.

Winter temperatures can quickly cause hypothermia, but this is totally preventable if you’re prepared ahead of time. Extreme weather events like these can take us by surprise, so include winter safety in your emergency plans.

Find more winter tips information here. 

6. Tornadoes

An average of 31 tornadoes occur in North Carolina every year. North Carolina is not in Tornado Alley but it is in Carolina Alley, which is considered the fourth-most active region for tornadoes in the United States. 

If the climate is favorable for their development, they can occur at any time of year, but you can expect them during spring, summer, and early fall months. The peak months for tornado activity in the state are April and May. 

One of the worst tornado outbreaks North Carolina has ever seen occurred on April 16, 2011. On that day, 30 tornadoes were seen ripping the state apart. They caused significant property damage, more than 300 injuries, and 24 fatalities. 

Tornadoes can catch anyone by surprise. That is why practicing drills should become important, not just in schools but in your home and workplace. I challenge you to train yourself to find a place where you could take shelter at home, at work, and any other place where you frequent.

This will help you act quickly and without panicking the next time that you receive a tornado warning. Always take shelter in an enclosed sturdy building.

Some of the safest locations include storm-proof shelters and basements, but if those aren’t an option, then opt for an interior room such as a closet. Keep your shelter stocked with non-perishable snacks and an emergency supply kit. 

Mobile homes and cars can be tossed around by twisters easily, so those are not your safest places to be. For more information on tornado safety, check out this complete guide! 

7. Droughts and Extreme Heat

North Carolina has an average of 10 days of dangerous heat and high humidity each year. Many people describe the summers to be oppressively hot in the non-mountainous parts of the state.

Not just that— North Carolina has experienced severe episodes of drought. Drought becomes a problem for farming, personal water use, and it increases the risk of wildfires. One of the worst droughts North Carolina ever faced happened between January 2000 and December 2002.

Then, a few years later in 2007, there was another week of drought where 66% of the state was under the most severe drought category.

Mass shortages caused a water emergency throughout most of the state and it resulted in significant crop losses. If you’re interested, the drought monitor provides up-to-date data on North Carolina’s current drought conditions. 

There are ways to retrofit your home to prepare for a heat wave, but that can become a costly investment for many. In the event of extreme heat, you should find nearby cooling centers or go to public places that have air conditioning.

Make sure to drink plenty of water, since the heat and humidity combined can make you sweat more and dehydrate you quickly.

Learn the symptoms of heat stress on the human body and keep a watchful eye over young children, older adults, and pets who may become susceptible to heat-related illnesses, especially if they’re taking medications or have pre-existing medical conditions.

To learn more about preparing for a heat wave, take a look at this guide! 

8. Landslides

Landslides are most commonly seen in the mountainous region, but can also occur near roads that were carved into hilly areas. Heavy rainfall, hurricanes, erosion, and poor drainage are some of the contributors that cause unstable soil to give way and slide down the path of least resistance. 

Preparing for a landslide begins by learning about the risk in your local community and property. One of the problems in North Carolina is that only four counties have been mapped out for landslide hazards, so you may have to pay an engineer to perform a terrain analysis on your property.

If your home is not in any direct danger (hopefully that’s the case!) you should still consider that there may be roads in and out of your city or main highways that you commonly drive which could be prone to landslips.

If so, you should consider which alternate routes you can take if one of those roads gets destroyed or is temporarily closed due to a slide. Learn about landslide risks, mitigation, and how you can stay safe in this article! 

9. Power Outages

Power outages can occur at any time and without warning, especially if there’s a natural disaster lurking. I highly recommend you prepare for a long-term power outage alongside any other disaster that your community may be faced with.

If a hurricane or other severe storm knocks out the power, you should be prepared to wait for at least two weeks until it gets fully restored. I always remember Hurricane Irma and how some communities in Puerto Rico had to wait nearly 11 months to get their electricity repaired.

Although in the United States you may expect it to get fixed much sooner than this, it’s not unrealistic to have to spend two weeks or more without it.

If you have medical conditions that require the use of electricity, or you want to keep your refrigerator and other small appliances charged, then I highly recommend investing in a generator.

Check out this guide where I highlight all the power outage kit must-haves! 

10. Tsunamis

Tsunamis are not as likely to hit the East Coast, in fact, roughly 85% of them occur within the Pacific Ocean. Still, the possibility of a tsunami occurring in the Atlantic Ocean is something scientists are studying and looking into.

Natural disaster resources for North Carolina

Now that you’re aware of the natural hazards in North Carolina, you may be wondering what to do next. The following tips are meant to guide you on your preparedness journey, whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or expert ‘prepper'.

Being prepared is not something that you master and check off the bucket list— it’s something you incorporate into your daily life and work consistently to improve on. 

  • Being alerted as natural disasters are predicted is super important to assure that you get to safety as soon as possible. Some natural disasters occur semi-spontaneously so having real-time updates is a huge benefit to you.

    The National Weather Service sends these messages to the public through their free app: NOAA Weather App. Download this app and stay tuned to your local radio for updates on developing storms. 

  • Every disaster mentioned above is unique. Sure, they all cause some type of destruction, but preparing for them looks different in each case.

    On this page, you can find some of the most common disasters and comprehensive guides with printable checklists to help you stay on track.

  • One thing that has made a huge difference for me has to become involved in my community. The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) is a U.S. government organization where you can meet other people that are learning about preparedness in your city.

    CERT provides free courses and simulations. Find your local CERT here!

  • Coming together as a community after a disaster makes a huge difference to the people who were directly impacted. North Carolina’s VOAD: Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, is a group of volunteers who allocate resources, supplies, and man-power to make sure the basic needs of the public are met. You can make a difference by participating with them.

  • The North Carolina Department of Public Safety is the government office responsible for helping people in all stages of a disaster, whether that’s preparing for them or recovering from them. 

I hope this article has provided the information you were looking for— with respect to the hazards that are likely in your state and the measures you can take to become ready for them.

Improve your skills, stockpiles, and mindset to become more resilient in times of disasters. 

We created an in-depth resource with guides, templates, and checklists that will allow you to customize your emergency plan according to your specific needs. Click here to get started!

Are you interested in learning about which disasters affect other states? Find the information to all the other 49 US states here!

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