Natural Disasters in North Carolina: What Is the Risk?

North Carolina is home to over 10.5 million people, many of whom have faced natural disasters or had to evacuate due to them.

Despite this, many North Carolina residents are unaware of the diverse range of natural disasters that could impact the state.

This article provides an overview of the natural disasters that North Carolina could face, examines the most severe disasters that have struck the state since 2000, and suggests practical measures that residents can take to prepare themselves for such events.

Is North Carolina At Risk of Natural Disasters?

Compared to the rest of the United States, North Carolina has a medium risk of natural disasters. Excluding COVID, North Carolina has had 38 disaster declarations since 2000. Of these, 25 were declared major disasters. 

North Carolina is also frequently hit by natural disasters, which cause more than $1 billion in damages. Since 2000, more than 73 separate $1-billion events have affected the state, most of which were severe storms or tropical cyclones.

Worst Natural Disasters in North Carolina By Cost (Since 2000)

  1. Hurricane Harvey 2017: $151.3 billion
  2. Hurricane Ian 2022: $112.9 billion
  3. Hurricane Sandy 2012: $83.9 billion
  4. Hurricane Ida 2021: $80.2 billion
  5. Hurricane Irma 2017: $60.5 billion

Worst Natural Disasters in North Carolina By Deaths (Since 2000)

  1. February 2021 Winter Storm and Cold Wave: 262 deaths
  2. Hurricane Sandy 2012: 159 deaths
  3. Hurricane Ian 2022: 152 deaths
  4. Hurricane Irma 2017: 97 deaths
  5. Hurricane Ida 2021: 96 deaths

*Cost and death tolls are for the entire disaster, including in other states affected.

Most Common Natural Disasters in North Carolina

1. Flooding

North Carolina has 3,375 miles of coastline and a coastal population of over 1.2 million. Because of increasing sea levels and the frequency of tropical storms, coastal areas of North Carolina are at high risk for flooding.  

Even inland parts of North Carolina aren’t safe from flooding. The state also has over 40,000 miles of streams and rivers. Storm surges can cause these waterways to swell and cause flooding inland.  

On top of this, North Carolina receives more rainfall than it did in the past, which increases the risk of flooding in both coastal and inland parts of the state. 

North Carolina Flood Stats

  • 538,900 properties at substantial risk in 2020
  • 729,200 properties at risk by 2050
  • 604,000 properties at substantial risk by 2050
  • 182,300 properties at almost certain risk by 2050
  • 545,800 FEMA flood damage claims since 2000

Which Areas of North Carolina Are Most At-Risk of Flooding?

Floods can occur in all parts of North Carolina, but some areas of the state are particularly at-risk. Below are the areas of North Carolina with the greatest percentage of properties likely to experience flooding (based on 2020 calculations). 

  • Avon: 94%
  • Holden Beach: 86%
  • Ocean Isle Beach: 80%
  • Bald Head Island: 77%
  • Washington: 77%
  • Fairfield Harbour: 76%
  • River Road: 75%
  • Beaufort: 75%
  • Surf City: 72%
  • Moyock: 71%

In addition to these areas, many major cities in North Carolina have thousands of properties at risk. This includes over 17,000 properties in Charlotte, 11,000 in Wilmington, and 8,000 in Raleigh.

Because of climate change, the risk of flooding is increasing in many parts of North Carolina. For example, currently, 27% of all properties in Wilmington are at risk of flooding, but this number will increase to 32% of all properties by 2050.  

2. Hurricanes

North Carolina is one of the most at-risk states in the country for tropical storms and hurricanes. From 1851 to 2020, the state was hit by 58 hurricanes. This ranks North Carolina as #4 in the country for hurricane frequency. Of these, 32 were Category 1, and 19 were Category 2. 

Approximately 12% of North Carolina’s population lives in coastal areas. These areas are particularly susceptible to hurricane damage. Because of this, in 2022, North Carolina ranked #5 in expected hurricane damage losses per capita.

3. Heat Waves and Droughts

As with the rest of the country, the risk of heat days is increasing in North Carolina. North Carolina averages 10 “dangerous” heat days per year. The National Weather Service defines these as days where the heat index is 103F or above. By 2050, the number of dangerous heat days in North Carolina is expected to increase to 60 days per year. 

In addition to more dangerous heat days, North Carolina will see more “Local Hot Days.”  Local Hot Days are “Days at or above the 98th percentile temperature, or the temperature that an area could expect to see on the hottest 7 days of the year.”  Essentially, Local Hot Days factor in what temperatures a local population is used to experiencing.  

An increase in Local Hot Days is associated with health problems like strokes, and heat-related deaths are more likely to occur. Energy demands also increase from air conditioning use.

All parts of North Carolina are expected to have an increase in Local Hot Days, but Carteret County is particularly at-risk. By 2053, Carteret is expected to have 21 consecutive days with temperatures at or above 102.7℉.

Droughts often accompany heat waves. As an agricultural state, droughts can have a huge economic impact on North Carolina.

4. Wildfires

North Carolina is one of the top 10 states in the USA for the number of wildfires per year. However, these wildfires tend to be minor, so it is not one of the riskiest states regarding acres burned per year. Since 2000, North Carolina has declared disaster four times because of wildfires.

The worst wildfires in North Carolina typically occur in late winter through late spring. There is a lot of dry brush and winds during this period. Most of the wildfires are human-caused when people carelessly burn brush. 

Because of climate change, the risk of wildfires in New York is growing. By 2050, an estimated 66% of all properties in the state will be at risk of wildfire.

North Carolina Wildfire Stats

  • Acres burned in 2021: 25,838
  • Number of fires in 2021: 5,151
  • Average number of wildfires per year: 4,500
  • Average number of acres burned per year: 25,000
  • Percentage of state covered by forests: 57%
  • Number of properties currently at risk of wildfire: 3,126,130

5. Tornados

North Carolina averages just 31 tornadoes per year, but most are very weak. The state has not had an F5 tornado in recent history, and it has only had seven days with F3 tornadoes.   Even these weak tornadoes can be very destructive, though. Since 2000, 38 people have died in North Carolina, and tornadoes have injured over 630. There were also millions in property and crop damages.

Because of this, North Carolina residents should still be prepared for tornadoes. It isn’t common for North Carolina homes to have basements, so residents need an above-ground tornado shelter and an emergency radio with tornado alerts set.

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