If Hurricane Hazel Hit Today...

While the debate rages on about the cause of sea level rise and if human activity is speeding up the process, the phenomena itself is not a new coastal hazard. Scientists have plenty of evidence that ocean levels rise and fall several times over thousands of years. Scientists have pretty strong evidence the seas are rising again. What makes sea level change so significant now is that there are many more of us living near the coast. And, as the report by the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission's Science Panel says, “over time it exacerbates existing coastal hazards.”

To better understand that sentence, let’s look at the most destructive hurricane in the state’s history: Hurricane Hazel.

The hurricane was a Category 4 storm when it struck the North Carolina/South Carolina border in 1954.

Records from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric and Administration (NOAA) show Hazel packed 140 mile per hour winds and an 18-foot storm surge when it made landfall. In North Carolina, 19 people were killed and 200 were injured. Approximately 15,000 homes and structures were destroyed; another 39,000 homes and structures were damaged. The property damage totaled $136 million.

The report says the destruction would be even worse today, not just because there is more development along the coast, but sea level rise has made the ocean a lot higher. Essentially, there is a lot more water offshore.

The report says because of the sea level change that has occurred in the 60 years since Hazel struck, a storm of similar strength would have a storm surge six inches higher — about 24 feet — if it hit today. Projecting out 30 years from now, which is the report’s timeline, the storm surge could be nine inches higher. 

I can’t image what kind of damage a storm like that would inflict.

— Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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