Officials are urging those who still intend to try to ride out Hurricane Florence to pack up and leave. While the Category 4 hurricane is expected to slam into the Carolinas later this week and then linger, it’s not just the wind speeds people need to worry about.
Forecasters are predicting catastrophic flooding and devastating storm surges, a term used to describe the abnormal increase in water that results when wind and pressure mix, forcing water onto land.
“This one really scares me,” said National Hurricane Center director Ken Graham. “It’s one of those situations where you’re going to get heavy rain, catastrophic, life-threatening storm surge, and also the winds.”
Storm surge warnings are in effect for a number of areas where the water could easily reach 10 feet above land, explained Athena Masson, a meteorologist and hurricane specialist currently based in Canada. People can get overly fixated on the storm’s category level, she said, but at the end of the day, that’s just wind.
WATCH: Today is the last good day to evacuate from Hurricane Florence, FEMA says
“Wind is just one very small, minute area that we worry about but the storm surge can easily stretch,” Masson said. “This is one of those events that you should not stay for no matter what.”
Storm surges are, per the National Hurricane Center, “often the greatest threat to life and property from a hurricane.”
The Center uses the high death toll from Hurricane Katrina as an example of how deadly the surge can be. At least 1,500 people were killed directly, or indirectly, during the 2005 hurricane from a surge.
What many people don’t seem to realize, Masson said, is that studies have shown more than half of deaths resulting from hurricanes come from storm surges while less than 10 per cent are attributed to wind.
WATCH: Hurricane Florence: North Carolina residents bracing for a ‘direct hit’
“That’s a huge gap,” she said. “A hurricane is not just a windstorm. If anything, the wind is just a very small component.”
If you need help visualizing it, Masson recommended you think of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated parts of Texas last year. Hurricane Florence is showing a similar size and intensity to Harvey, she said. Now think of the photos of Texas houses completely submerged.
“Houses, property, everything was sucked out to sea,” Masson said, and inland didn’t fare much better.
“Structures were completely taken off their foundation and pushed inland,” she said. “Most houses are not built at least 10 feet off the ground.”
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Don’t stay, Masson urged. She, herself, has lived through Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Wilma.
“This is Mother Nature and no matter what, always take her seriously because she will win.”
In addition to storm surge warnings, forecasters say Hurricane Florence could dump between one and two-and-a-half feet of rain. They’re expecting “catastrophic flash flooding and significant river flooding.”
WATCH: North Carolina governor acknowledges Hurricane Florence is different
Even those states further from the eye of the storm are bracing for flooding. Although the National Hurricane Center was predicting between 15 and 25 inches of rain, up to 35 inches in select areas, a computer simulation that accurately predicted Hurricane Harvey rain levels is predicting it will hit 45 inches.
“This one is different,” North Carolina’s Gov. Roy Cooper warned residents, “Don’t bet your life on riding out a monster.”
WATCH: Officials from the city of Raleigh, N.C. discuss the preparations being taken as Hurricane Florence churns towards them.
— with files from the Associated Press