Hurricanes: Our risk versus their risk - It’s complicated - Shooting The Breeze


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Hurricanes: Our risk versus their risk - It’s complicated

Friday 09 June 2017 at 7:36 pm.


As I start my 23rd Atlantic hurricane season as a person who actually lives in hurricane territory, I’m more sensitive to talk that condemns coastal residents for living on, you know, the coast.

The attitude is if you want to risk living near the ocean, then you should not expect any government help after storms.

But this is also true if you live in places subject to other nasty, expensive natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, landslides, volcanoes , drought, heat waves, wildfires, blizzards, avalanches, deep freezes, and/or straight-line winds.

Yes, the National Flood Insurance Program that subsidizes much of our property insurance is costly and needs reform, but it is unfair to regard coastal property owners as irresponsible any more than it is to regard others who live in risky zones – which seem to be everywhere. Our taxes help you recover, your taxes help us recover. It deserves mention that many, many people live on our nation’s coasts and they pay a great deal in taxes. Many more people visit the coast, or own property on the coast, and they also contribute tons of tax revenue to government coffers.

Meanwhile, the newly-released forecast for the 2017 hurricane season that began on June 1 is predicting a 45 percent chance of an above-normal season, with a 70 percent chance of 11 to 17 named tropical storms, and an above-average likelihood some will become hurricanes. It could be taken as a bad sign that the season has had an unusual head-start, with Tropical Storm Arlene forming in April.

Hatteras and Ocracoke islands are more likely than other parts of the Outer Banks to be directly impacted by tropical storms, but few year-round residents live in expensive houses on the oceanfront. Many members of the community belong to native families, or are long-time locals, and take steps to avoid storm risks. Still, no matter what precautions are taken, impacts are not always avoidable. Hatteras villagers are still recovering from flooding from Hurricane Matthew last year.

Flooded yards, flooded streets, flooded fields, flooded buildings. Mountains, coast, midland, lowland, highland. Desert, plain, river valley, city, shoreline: it’s all vulnerable. Flooding is an enormous nationwide disaster. Every year, somewhere, sometime. We flood, you flood. Soon, we might all flood.

Life isn’t so black and white. Do people live where they live based only on insurance losses? Or is it maybe deeper than that?

We all take calculated risks, of course. And yes, the Outer Banks is vulnerable. But it’s not like it’s constant condition and an unrelenting risk. Year-round residents here know how to be responsible and how to stay safe. I’m sure that people who live on the edges of fire zones and in the middle of earthquake faults (say, the entire coast of California) also probably take reasonable precautions. But effects from weather or geological faults are not always predictable.

I’m a product of the suburbs of New York City. To me, hazardous weather was an ice storm or blizzard that honed my brink-of-death driving skills. It wasn’t until I visited my brother in St. Paul, MN when I was 18 that I got a taste of weather that could kill you like a bug. There one second, flattened the next. I was practically whisked from the airport into a tornado cellar. I glimpsed the sky: it was a deep shade of olive-black, the scariest color I’ve ever seen. It was deathly still and quiet. The shelter was like a damp underground clubhouse, without the fun. I remember the sirens blaring, blaring, blaring. There were canned goods and water jugs to help us survive . . . what?? My aunt brought down liquor and cigarettes, just in case. We waited. Then we were shooed out as if nothing happened.

But the experience stuck with me. That pre-storm mix of fear/excitement/anticipation. Adrenaline. Everyone talks a lot, drinks a lot, laughs a lot. Except when the wind shifts, and then we listen real hard and say nothing.

So, when I moved to the Outer Banks in 1995, that was my foreboding storm reference point. Hurricanes are bad like tornadoes, because of their destructive power. But my thinking was that hurricanes are not as dangerous because they’re predictable, and you can get out of their path.

I’ve been through a lot of hurricanes since – Fran through Matthew – and I’ve learned that things are a lot more complicated. Every time I’ve hunkered down in my house, more than once I’ve thought back to that tornado cellar. Hiding from the nightmare outside, cashing in your karma. Hoping, praying, wishing for the best. For yourself, your family. Your neighbors, your friends. Your community. Not knowing what you’ll see when it’s calm enough – finally – to peek outside. What an awful feeling, before you know.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 still stands as the most costly and destructive natural disaster in the U.S., with $145 billion of losses and 1, 833 deaths. Our losses from storms will never reach that cost, but loss – and risk – is all relative. Outer Bankers still feel scars from Isabel, Irene and even Matthew. But just like Midwesterners in tornado alley and residents of old river communities, we stay because it’s home.

seven comments

Salvo Jimmy

Keep in mind that most of the destruction generally comes from sound flooding and it does not have to be a named storm. Until Irene, the most destruction I had seen around my place in Salvo, built in 1971, was from a March Nor’Easter in 1993. Sound flooding was at about 4 ft. Irene was at about 5 ft. All others have been less.

In my 46 years it has never been the wind or ocean directly; it was the sound.

BTW sound tides are generally about 2-3 hrs later than ocean tides. So strong Westerly winds and high sound tide can be problematic, named storm or not.

Salvo Jimmy - 09-06-’17 20:36

Have been much safer staying on Hatteras during a hurricane, rather than going inland where most of the death and destruction happens.

Bud - 11-06-’17 13:44
Arthur Pewty

14 (fourteen) category 4-5 hurricanes made US landfall from 1926 to 1969.
Since 1969 only 3 (three) category 4-5 hurricanes have made landfall in the US.
There is good reason to believe that this major hurricane “drought” may soon be coming to an end with a return to more normal tropical seasons. Isabel, Irene and Matthew were mere childs play compared to what will be coming our way.

Arthur Pewty - 14-06-’17 01:57

Wasn’t the scale different back in those days ? The Irene’s and Matthews would have been 4’s and 5’s Back then ??? As for Arthur’s take …i’m going the other way , In that with today’s ecological happenings I think the larger storms are getting few and far between . I’m thinking the Hatteras folks are hoping the same thing . What makes you say that though Arthur ??

diver531 - 15-06-’17 18:44
Salvo Jimmy

Again no named storm needed.

In a Jan 1976 Nor’Easter this ship washed up on shore in Salvo. My Dad lost a Jeep to sound flooding.

Salvo Jimmy - 19-06-’17 16:41
Salvo Jimmy


The Safir-Simpson scale is based on wind speed and was introduced in the early 1970s. Since the wind speed of storms going back to the 1920s is generally know, the scale has been applied retroactively to storms, so the Cats are consistent that Arthur talks about going back to the 1920s.

Salvo Jimmy - 19-06-’17 16:54
Salvo Jimmy

Another thing to consider, and Isabel is a good example, is storm surge does not fall off like wind speed. Isabel was a Cat 4 and 5 when well off shore for a fairly long period, which generated huge waves. As it approached land it rapidly fell off to a Cat 2 and made landfall well to the South of HI, about Drum Inlet.

Many folks breathed a sigh of relief because of this. However the waves generated at the Cat 4-5 stage did not fall off very much and thus the devastation at Hatteras Village, including the Inlet at the North end.

I recall one couple whose ocean front house was washed off its foundation and they endeded up clinging to a tree as their dog floated off toward the sound. Fortunately the tree held and later as the surge came back from the sound the dog came back and they managed to get it.

Salvo Jimmy - 19-06-’17 17:47

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