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Weather IQ: The Worst Floods in North Carolina

Tropical storms and hurricanes have historically influenced North Carolina's most historic floods. Here are the worst floods on record.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina is no stranger to flooding. Every year floods happen across the state. But sometimes the set up lines up perfectly, leading to catastrophic historical flooding.

We reached out to Corey Davis, N.C. State University's Assistant State Climatologist, to inquire what were the worst flooding events in North Carolina history. Below were his findings and honorable mentions.

North Carolina's Top 5 Worst Floods:

1. Hurricane Florence, September 2018. In terms of rainfall amounts and duration or flooding extent and severity, no other event comes close to Florence. The storm slowed to a crawl as it moved inland and dropped more than 12 inches of rainfall across the Sandhills and southern Coastal Plain, with nearly 3 feet of rain in the hardest-hit parts of Bladen, Onslow, and Carteret counties. The Neuse and Cape Fear rivers, and their tributaries, simply had no way to handle that much water, so they reached record crests and the water spilled over into towns, farms, and even the interstates for days or weeks after the storm. Even four years later, cities like Lumberton are still dealing with its impacts, whether it's buying out homes in the floodplain or planning to rebuild and elevate Interstate 95 to try to avoid future flooding like Florence caused.

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2. Hurricane Matthew, October 2016. Before Florence, our state's worst flooding hurricane was Matthew. While the eye of the storm never made landfall in North Carolina, it pumped in ample moisture off the Atlantic and produced more than a foot of rainfall in areas like Fayetteville that were already wet after tropical storms Hermine and Julia, as well as several heavy rain showers, in the month before Matthew. The Cape Fear and Neuse rivers both reached then-record crests, and the high-water mark in Kinston remains the all-time record, even after Florence. The flooding from Matthew was enough to inundate major roads, towns such as Lumberton, Kinston, and New Bern, and devastate farms during the harvest season.

3. Hurricane Floyd, September 1999. Floyd was the first -- but as we now see 23 years later, not the only -- hurricane to cause significant inland and freshwater flooding in North Carolina. It came on the heels of Hurricane Dennis less than two weeks earlier, which had saturated soils and streams as it circled offshore. When the 12 to 18 inches of rain fell from Floyd, that excess water caused then-unprecedented flooding along the Tar and Neuse rivers. Floyd is mainly remembered for its impacts on communities in eastern North Carolina. The historic town of Princeville, founded by freed slaves after the Civil War, was inundated by more than 20 feet of water after a levee protecting it from the Tar River was breached. Flooding on hog farms carried animal waste downstream and contaminated water supplies, which created an environmental and public health disaster.

4. Mountain Flooding, July 1916. The combination of two tropical systems -- one from the Gulf, and another from the Atlantic -- drenching the Mountains over the course of a week created significant flooding in mid-July 1916. The Asheville area was hit the hardest, as the French Broad River reached an estimated 23-foot crest -- more than 5 feet above its major flood stage. Along the Catawba River, the flooding was enough to wipe out bridges and railroad trestles, and dozens of Southern Railway workers died in the cleanup from the storm. This event still holds the state record for rainfall in a 24-hour period -- 22.22 inches at Altapass -- and as our deadliest tropical storm, with approximately 80 fatalities total.

5. Second Great Flood, August 1940. So named because it happened just 24 years after the July 1916 flood in the same region, this 1940 event had a similar setup, with moisture from the remnants of a hurricane rising up our mountain slopes and producing heavy rain and flooding. Boone had eight inches in a day, which caused thousands of landslides in the area. The Watauga and New rivers crested even higher in this event than they had in the July 1916 floods, which makes it the worst flood on record for the northern Mountains. At least 20 deaths are blamed on this event.

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Honorable Mentions:

Tropical Storm Fred, August 2021. Even before the remnants of Fred reached us last August, it had already been a wet weekend, with several long-lived showers and thunderstorms in the southern Mountains. The rain from Fred boosted weekly totals to more than 12 inches in some spots, and that water cascaded down the slopes and into the rivers and streams. Fred's worst flooding was confined to Haywood County, where the Pigeon River inundated Canton and Cruso and caused five deaths. Elsewhere, the French Broad River in Asheville and the Swannanoa River at Biltmore both reached moderate flood stage after the storm.

Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne, September 2004. A trio of three remnant tropical storms combined to bring widespread flooding and damage across western North Carolina in September 2004. First, Frances dropped more than a foot of rain, including 14.62 inches at Black Mountain, which surged the Swannanoa River and caused flooding in the Biltmore Village area. Less than two weeks later, the remnants of Ivan took a similar track up the Appalachians, and its additional moisture caused waterlogged soils and slopes to fail, with several deadly landslides including in the Peeks Creek community in Macon County. At the end of the month, Jeanne caused minor flooding, but wrapped up the wettest month on record in much of western North Carolina. Lake Toxaway had a monthly total of 31.45 inches -- nearly a third of its annual average precipitation -- and Mount Mitchell had 46.77 inches, or two-thirds of its annual average falling in just one month.

Eta-Fueled Rainfall, November 2020. The record-setting 2020 Atlantic hurricane season lasted well into November and into the Greek alphabet, which was the supplemental naming scheme formerly used in the basin. One of the most impactful storms that year never actually moved over North Carolina, but Tropical Storm Eta fed in moisture ahead of a cold front to produce locally heavy rainfall and flooding in the western Piedmont and northern Coastal Plain. Three people died and 31 were rescued at Hiddenite Campground after it was quickly overtaken by flood water, and parts of 230 roads (including interstates 85 and 95) were closed during or after the storm. That event was a key part of our state's wettest year on record in 2020.

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