Two of the state's biggest storms hit after statistical peak of season

It’s not exactly all downhill from here, but today marks the statistical peak of the Atlantic hurricane season.

But one look through history is a clear indication that there are no guarantees Eastern North Carolina won’t be slapped with a storm. After all, two of the 20th century’s worst hurricanes — Floyd in 1999 and Hazel in 1954 — both made landfall after the peak point of the season.

Still, 2015 has been a mild hurricane season in the Atlantic, backing up long-range forecasts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Climate Prediction Center, among others.

Tropical Storm Grace became the season’s seventh named storm last week. Up to 10 have been predicted, which would rank 2015 below the average of 12 storms per year.

“We pretty much are expecting a below normal year,” said John Cole, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service Office in Newport. “That doesn’t mean we get something that develops in late September or early October and threatens the United States coastline. Even though we are expecting a below normal year with activity, we still have to be aware that we could get a land-falling system here on the U.S. coastline.”

Cole points out that Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm that devastated parts of southern Florida, occurred during a below-average hurricane season in 1992.

Cole said that the Atlantic has been in an active hurricane cycle, call it the active multi-decadal cycle, since 1995. However, a strong El Nino, which is a warming of Pacific Ocean waters, has caused high winds aloft in the Atlantic, which has inhibited hurricane formation this year, he said. Dry air is also in place over the Atlantic Ocean, and that also prevents formation of a storm or causes weaker storms when they do form, he said.

Still, Cole warns residents not to let their guards down.

“You really never know,” he said. “You have to be vigilant every year. You have to take every year seriously no matter what the forecasts are. It only takes one.”

Marie Bryan has lived through dozens of hurricane seasons. At age 88, she even remembers the infamous hurricane of 1933. She was 6 when the storm — at that point they were not given names — made landfall at Beaufort Inlet with 125 mph winds on Sept. 15. At the time, she lived off Hancock Creek.

“I remember after the storm we walked out and looked around,” she said. “Water had been up in the trees because some of the boats that had been parked at the creek, parts of them were up in those trees. The fields were full of water up on the hill and all around the other houses.”

While the 1933 storm did its damage, North Carolina developed a reputation as “Hurricane Alley” in the 1950s. In 1955, three hurricanes — Connie on Aug. 12, Diane on Aug. 17 and Ione on Sept. 19 — struck the state’s southeastern coast within a six-week period. Two of those, Connie and Ione, made landfall in Carteret County.

“They were terrible,” said Dorothy Ebron, 87, of Havelock.

But she said Hazel, a Category 4 storm that hit the coast on Oct. 15, 1954, was the worst.

“It was awful, blowing the trees and limbs,” she said. “It was one of the worst ones we’ve ever had. It flooded everything. Lights and everything was off. It was really bad.”

Hazel was devastating in Craven County, especially in the eastern part closer to the Neuse River, Bryan said.

“It was pretty bad, according to the neighbors,” Bryan said. “The further you go towards Adams Creek, the lower the land is. Pretty much all of them were flooded.”

Kay Griffin, of Newport, said she doesn’t remember the names of all the hurricanes.

“I just remember the one in 1999, Floyd,” she said of the storm that caused massive inland flooding throughout much of Eastern North Carolina. Some consider it the state’s worst hurricane of all time.

Griffin said she went to her son’s home because it was brick.

“We covered up all the windows and just stayed inside and played Scrabble and had a party,” she said. “We just had a lot of branches down and nothing fell on the house, thank the Lord.

“There were very high winds and a lot of gusting. The gusting was just incredible. You just didn’t want to be outside. We put boards on the windows. We couldn’t hear outside and we stayed overnight. It was doing that whistling and like that. With the weather alerts, we knew it was coming. We didn’t want to wait until it was here before we started doing anything. They are incredible once they get started.”

Bryan nearly lost her house on the shore of the Neuse River at Great Neck in eastern Craven County when Hurricane Isabel made landfall on Sept. 18, 2003.

“I had four foot of water in my house,” she said. “We had to rebuild part of it because of it. It was cleaned out, worked on and I didn’t move back in.”

Eight years later, another storm, Irene, finished the job on Aug. 27, 2011.

“It destroyed my house. We had to push the rest of the house down and rebuild,” Bryan said.

Bryan had evacuated and rode out the storm with her son.

“We couldn‘t get in there for a couple of days the water was so high on the road,” she said. “I’d been through it before, so I wasn’t surprised. That was the worst one. It stayed longer and it was a lot rougher.”

Irene was a slow-moving storm that produced flooding even along Slocum Creek in Havelock.

“It’s a serious thing when it sticks around a long time. It does a lot of damage. It depends on where you are and how close to the water you are,” said Bryan. “When the storm comes in from the west, we don’t have as high a tide, but if it comes in east of us, then it’s really bad because it’s a big nor’easter.”

Irene Hess left her home at Great Neck Point along the Neuse River during Hurricane Irene.

“We were planning on staying in our house at Great Neck Point, but a friend called and said ‘Pack up the cats and come on,’ so we stayed at a house in Havelock,” she said. “We had $30,000 worth of damage. All the flooring had to come out. We had flood insurance. It took our storage shed and took it about a block and a half. The water was up to four feet in the garage. I sure hope we don’t have to do it again.”

David Bratton, a captain with the Havelock Police Department, serves as the city’s emergency manager and remembers Irene well.

“It just hung over us with the rain and the little bit of wind,” he said. “It had a little bit more impact on us because of the length of time it was here. Had that been a major hurricane, it would have beaten us to death. We would have had a major impact, much more than what we did.”

Bratton was around in 1996 when Hurricane Bertha — the first July storm to hit North Carolina in 88 years — devastated Topsail Beach. Havelock sent its police officers down to help out.

“The fire department was just leveled and the police department was just torn all to pieces,” he said of the beach area south of Jacksonville. “Everybody in the department went. We did everything for them.

“It was like a third-world country down there. We had to take our own food, water, gasoline down there for the first two or three days. They gave us the keys to their four-wheel-drives and said ‘help.’ They only had five or seven officers, and they were all wore out.”

But Floyd stands out to Bratton. The 1999 storm came on the heels of Hurricane Dennis, which two weeks earlier had soaked the coastal plain. It set the stage for the devastating flooding that followed.

“There were a lot of breakdowns of the planning at the state and federal level,” Bratton said of the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd. “Nobody was prepared for it. I think we’re better off now than before because the agencies got together and critiqued it and fixed some things.”

But the next big one could form at any time — even if it’s after the statistical peak of the hurricane season.

“If we have a Category 3, 4 or, heaven forbid, a 5 come through here, you can’t really imagine the damage that would be done this time with all the construction and everything around,” he said.

Bryan hopes the next big one will spare her Great Neck home.

“I’ve been in my house almost three years. It will be three years in October,” she said. “I’m up in the air with the birds and squirrels. I’m 18 feet off the ground. If they get me, they’ll get everybody down there.”