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Floods historically cause the most damage in Mecklenburg County

Hurricane Ian brought high winds and heavy rains to the Charlotte area. History shows it's the water, not the winds, that cause the most destruction.

MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. — As Hurricane Ian came toward Charlotte with potential wind gusts of up to 50 mph Friday, historical data show few hurricanes and tropical storms have hit the area with maximum wind speeds that high. In fact, public records identify only eight since 1900 that have reached those speeds.

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Historically, flash floods and floods have caused the most property damage and among the most deaths when it comes to severe weather in Mecklenburg County.

Credit: Charlotte-Mecklenburg County

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The most recent Charlotte-Mecklenburg Multi-Jurisdictional Hazard Mitigation Plan from 2020 identified 70 flash floods that killed three people (one in Charlotte and two in Matthews) and caused more than $12 million in property damage between 1999 and 2018. The report documented another 19 floods that injured three people and damaged $2 million worth of property.

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While hurricane and tropical storms during that timeframe largely left Mecklenburg County unharmed, a 1-year-old died in floodwaters caused by Hurricane Florence in 2018 after police said his mother drove around barricades in Union County. In South Carolina, two people drowned inside a prison transport van in floodwaters caused by Florence.

Credit: Charlotte-Mecklenburg County

Over more than a century, hurricanes and tropical storms within 50 miles of Mecklenburg County caused wind speeds of anywhere from 40 mph to as high as 98 (Hurricane Hugo, 1989) with a median speed of 46 mph, according to the plan. Hugo remains the most significant storm to impact Mecklenburg County, largely changing the view "that tropical cyclones were strictly a coastal phenomenon."

Florence, which made landfall as a Category 1 in Wilmington, hit the Charlotte area as a tropical storm but decreased to post-tropical through the flooding event, according to WCNC Charlotte's Chris Mulcahy. While both Florence and Michael, also in 2018, exceeded wind gusts of 40 mph at the airport, sustained max wind speeds from both only hit 28 mph, Mulcahy said.

Separately, "high wind" and "strong wind" accounted for 16 severe weather events in Mecklenburg County between 1999 and 2018, resulting in three deaths and three injuries.

A previous version of the hazard mitigation plan identified a 1978 flood as the most significant, causing more than 2,100 in total losses totaling $38 million.

Credit: Charlotte-Mecklenburg County

Contact Nate Morabito at nmorabito@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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