Despite the fury Hurricane Florence unleashed along the coastline of the Carolinas, areas with wide sandy beaches and high dunes fared well in the face of an unprecedented onslaught of storm surge and waves.
Although the coastline suffered significant erosion, restored beaches accomplished their design purpose of protecting upland properties and communities. While communities are pleased to have been spared from more serious damage, many must now rebuild their battered beaches to ensure their communities are protected from the next coastal catastrophe.
Hurricane Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach, NC, at 7:15 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. Despite having been downgraded the previous day to a Category 1 storm, Florence produced a maximum surge of 10 feet or more along sections of the North Carolina coast. Since the storm had spent numerous days building up mass and momentum, the attendant storm surge was far greater than the reduced wind speed would indicate.
Additionally for several days prior to landfall, Florence’s forward motion had been slowed considerably by a high pressure ridge over eastern North Carolina. As a result, many beach areas experienced elevated water levels and heavy wave activity over several tidal cycles. This behavior, which is more characteristic of a nor’easter, can cause significantly more coastal erosion than would result from a faster-moving hurricane of similar size and power due to the extended time of surge and wave activity.
Initial assessments are still being compiled, but the first wave of data and aerial photographic comparisons indicate wide restored beaches combined with a healthy dune system stood up to the prolonged pounding of Florence’s waves and surge. This protection not only spared upland properties from catastrophic damages, but enabled coastal communities to recover more quickly and re-open for returning residents sooner.
This outcome is something that scientists, engineers, and policymakers have been championing since Superstorm Sandy in 2012 showed firsthand the value of wide beaches and healthy dune systems in reducing storm surge and wave damage.
In the wake of Florence, there will be a push by impacted communities for help in restoring their shorelines to their full protective profile in advance of the winter nor’easters and prior to the start of next year’s Atlantic hurricane season on June 1. State and federal officials will need to respond rapidly to this call for restoration, since mobilization of any such projects takes significant time and coordination, and the window for opportunity for restorative construction along this stretch of Atlantic coastline is often limited.
While the success of the Carolinas’ coastline in standing up to Florence is the story today, looking ahead at similar storm scenarios in years to come underscores the need for a post-storm recovery and restoration plan that allows coastal communities to rely on state and federal partners to step up swiftly following a storm’s landfall. Florence and similar catastrophic rain events in recent years also points out the need to build resilience throughout the watershed, to recognize that storms such as these are becoming more than coastal catastrophes bringing damaging impacts far inland and for far more days in duration.
The goal needs to be developing a response system starting at the federal level that enhances resilience and reduces risk, to aid local communities in reducing damages and accelerating recovery in a systemic and reliable response.
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