Forecasters, even those paying close attention to the progress of Hurricane Matthew, were unprepared for the amount of flooding that hit the region with the Oct. 8 storm.
That was one of several conclusions in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s final report on Hurricane Matthew. The report on the 2016 storm was released Wednesday.
In the report, NOAA looked at how well forecasting predicted the storm’s path and potential effects. The report also recounted death and damage for each state affected by Matthew.
“Communicating the extreme threat posed by Matthew was a monumental task for the National Weather Service,” the NOAA report said. “The service assessment team found that NWS staff performed exceptionally and professionally ... in the face of such a dangerous and historic situation.”
North Carolina, the report noted, suffered more loss of life than all other states combined with 25. Overall, the storm killed 34 in the United States. Of the 25 deaths in North Carolina, 24 were flood related and 19 came from people either walking or driving into floodwaters and being swept away. Three people died in Lenoir County, one while trying to rescue a horse from floodwater, another who drove a car around a barricade blocking a flooded road and another who drowned in a shed. No deaths were reported in Craven County.
Record or near-record flooding was reported along the Neuse River, impacting areas of western Craven County as well as areas in Kinston and Goldsboro.
In all, North Carolina had $1.1 billion in damage, and East Coast damage was estimated at $10.1 billion.
As a rule, cooperation between agencies handling storm prediction was solid, the report found.
“Many NWS partners expressed that they could not have carried out their mission as effectively without the support received, both at the local and national levels,” the report said. “NWS offices faced several challenges during the event, including staff shortages, deployment fatigue, and the need to integrate a large variety of weather and hydrology data into consolidated briefings and messages.”
Matthew didn’t help matters by continually shifting its track just off the southeast coast during its approach. While the general threat was understood up to a week in advance, specific forecasting of more than 48 hours was difficult.
Faced with the potential of landfall from Florida to North Carolina, often with potentially a few hours’ notice, the storm forced frazzled forecasters to remain vigilant. Forecasters noted that the public’s insistence of focusing on the “skinny black line” on hurricane track forecasts may have led many to stay home, rather than leave before flooding made evacuation impossible.
The biggest shortcoming in forecasting was the immense rainfall that hit North and South Carolina. Final rainfall totals in the Cape Fear region reached nearly 19 inches in the Evergreen area, between Bladenboro and Chadbourn, in southeastern North Carolina. Several other spots topped a foot of rain in 24 hours. The flooding was compounded in the western Sandhills by heavy rain that fell earlier, robbing the soil of any ability to absorb additional runoff. The report mentions that rainfall amounts exceeding 10 inches were common in Eastern North Carolina.
So, while inland flooding was expected, the report says many were taken by surprise by its ferocity, as much as a 1,000-year event.
“Part of the surprise may have been that many of the areas experienced flooding at levels not previously recorded,” the report said. “According to the U.S. Geologic Survey, 26 river gauges in North Carolina alone recorded new peaks in river height, including one gauge that has been utilized since 1896.”
NOAA suggested enhanced communication among National Weather Service offices when potential widespread flooding events threaten the state. Additional river gauges may be needed, perhaps portable “rapid deployment” gauges for flood events.
Hurricane Matthew achieved category 5 status and then later made landfall in western Haiti, eastern Cuba and the Bahamas. It had weakened to a category 1 hurricane when it made landfall in central South Carolina on Oct. 8 and tracked through Eastern North Carolina on Oct. 9.
Coastal Carolina Regional Airport in New Bern recorded 5.30 inches of rain and a peak wind of 49 mph with the storm, according to the report. Cherry Point recorded a 54 mph wind, Beaufort 61 mph, New River in Onslow County 63 mph and Kinston 44 mph.
Other area rainfall amounts from the storm listed in the report included 7.66 inches in western parts of New Bern, 5.35 inches at New River and 16.50 in an area of Kinston.