North Carolina boasts one of the most diverse climates among the eastern states. This is due in part to the different topography that encompasses the state, as well as the different types of soil, plant life, and the many different bodies of water. Topographically, North Carolina is divided into three main regions: from west to east, the Appalachian Mountains, the Piedmont Plateau, and the Atlantic Coastal Plain.
The Geographic Regions
The Atlantic Coastal Plain is protected from ocean effects by the Outer Banks, barrier islands that run most of the length of North Carolina’s coast. The plain reaches westward for up to 140 miles and holds all the naturally-created lakes in the state.
The Piedmont Plateau stretches approximately 150 miles wide and ranges in height from 30 feet to 1,500 feet. Its separation from the Atlantic Coastal Plain is marked by a significant elevation change. This fall line creates the rapids on the rivers that sit between the regions.
The Appalachian Mountains are separated from the Piedmont Plateau by the steep Blue Ridge range which boasts heights between 3,000 and 4,000 feet.
How Water is Funneled through North Carolina
The drainage basins that help control water throughout the different geographic regions are fairly evenly divided throughout North Carolina. A number of rivers flow westward from the mountains into the Mississippi River. Eastward, the rivers drain from the Piedmont Plateau and the Atlantic Coastal Plain.
Because of the different topography in the state, flooding can happy at any time. In 2005 alone, 116 flash flood warnings were declared throughout the state by the National Weather Service. Late spring sees the rivers reach their greatest flow levels. Flash floods that occur due to soil being frozen or already saturated are seen earlier in the spring while winter brings excessive rainfall. And hurricane season, which runs from the 1st of June to the 30th of November, can cause the most damaging floods. Typically one hurricane will not cause major flooding, but successive hurricanes dumped on already saturated ground can be devastating.
Major Rivers: Black River, Broad River, Cape Fear River, Catawba River, Chowan River, Deep River, Don River, French Broad River, Haw River, Lumber River, Neuse River, Northeast Cape Fear River, Pee Dee River, Roanoke River, Rocky River, South River, Tar River, Tadkin River
Major Lakes: B. Everett Jordan Lake, Belews Lake, Chatuge Lake, Falls Lake, Fontana Lake, High Rock Lake, Hiwasee Lake, John H. Kerr Reservoir, Lake Gaston, Lake James, Lake Mattamuskeet, Lake Norman, Long Bay, Onslow Bay, W. Kerr Scott Reservoir
River Basins: Hiwassee, Little Tennessee, Savannah, French Broad, Broad, Catawba, Watauga, New, Yadkin-Pee Dee, Lumber, Cape Fear, Neuse, Roanoke, Tar-Pamlico, Roanoke, White Oak, Chowan, Pasquotank
Major Flood Events
1916 – Great Catawba River Flood
Western North Carolina saw two successive tropical storms resulting in extensive flooding. The first storm, having originally impacted the coast of Alabama on the 5th and 6th of July, dumped excessive rainfall on the mountain and foothill region of North Carolina. This storm was not enough to cause flooding, but it did soak the soil and cause a rising of streams and rivers.
The second storm hit the region mid-month and dropped record levels of rainfall, with 22.22 inches recorded in a 24-hour period. Because the ground had already reached the point of saturation, the vast majority of the rain from the second storm was surplus and overwhelmed the already risen waterways. At Ashville, the French Broad River surpassed its flood stage by 17 feet and swelled from an average 381 feet wide to nearly 1300 feet. The Catawba River saw a rise of nearly 23 feet above high levels previously recorded.
Along both the French Broad and Catawba rivers, devastation was far-reaching. Property damage affected bridges, houses, factories, and railroads among many others. The cost of property damage was estimated at $22 million.
1954 – Hurricane Hazel
During October 1954, the south North Carolina coast experienced the year’s largest lunar tide. It was during this “marsh hen tide” that Hurricane Hazel hit. The storm was so destructive, its hurricane-strength winds were still in effect by the time it hit Raleigh, over 100 miles inland from the coast. More than 15,000 structures were completely destroyed, with property losses estimated at $136 million. 19 people died with another 200 injured.
1960 – Hurricane Donna
Hurricane Donna made landfall at Topsail Island in September of 1960 as a Category 3 hurricane. Tides were 4-8 feet above normal. Destruction was most prevalent in Carteret, Pamlico, Hyde, and Tyrell counties with Atlantic Beach, Beaufort, and Morehead City receiving the worst of the damage. The hardest hit areas suffered extensive property damage, beach erosion, loss of crops, and significant power outages. The cost of damages reached $25 million. More than 8 people died and at least 100 suffered injuries.
1989 – Hurricane Hugo
September 1989 saw Hurricane Hugo make landfall and sweep inland all the way to Charlotte, 150 miles to the west. The environmental impact of Hugo was immense. An estimated 100,000 trees were uprooted, resulting in a more than $250 million loss to the timber industry. The coastline also suffered significant beach erosion. In total, 29 counties were declared federal disaster areas and damages were estimated at $1 billion. 7 North Carolinians lost their lives.
1996 – Hurricane Fran
Hurricane Fran roared ashore in September 1996, and was referred to as “Paul Bunyan” for uprooting thousands of trees during its stay. Fran made landfall near Bald Head Island with winds at 115 mph and an accompanying storm surge that ranged between 8 and 12 feet. All of the neighborhoods in the Triangle Region, which includes Chatham, Durham, Lee, Johnston, Orange, and Wake counties, were littered with downed trees and suffered power outages longer than a week. Each of North Carolina’s 100 counties declared states of emergency for the very first time. Total damages reached $2.3 billion and 24 people were killed.
1995 – Tropical Storm Jerry
August of 1995 saw Tropical Storm Jerry unleash enough rainfall to flood three watersheds. Flood insurance claims reached $4 million and loans for repair and recovery of property damage hit the $1 million range.
1999 – Hurricane Floyd
When Hurricane Floyd hit in September 1999, the ground had already been saturated and the rivers swollen due to Tropical Storm Dennis that impacted the area 10 days earlier. Rainfall for some areas lasted for more than 60 hours which resulted in devastating floods. Roads, highways, and homes in Wilmington were flooded when Floyd made landfall nearby. The entire eastern part of North Carolina, to include Princeville, Rocky Mount, Tarboro, and Wilson, was inundated by flood waters leaving entire communities under water. And estimated 8,000 homes were destroyed and more than 67,000 damaged. The flood waters stretched an astonishing 4.2 million acres. Damages were estimated at $6 billion.
52 people were killed as a result of Floyd, many of whom died while trying to traverse flooded roads. Others were surprised by flood waters in their homes.
Hurricane Floyd was responsible for uncovering the fact that many people did not carry flood insurance on their properties because they believed any such damage would be covered by their homeowners insurance.
North Carolina is one of the most beautiful states with its lush landscape and soaring mountains. Beauty, however, can be deceptive and it’s easy to forget that flood events can cause such devastation along the state’s many waterways and coastal regions. More flood insurance information can be found on our website and we invite you to educate yourself with the facts. For information about emergency preparation, please visit the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.