Sunday, July 21, 2024

As Hurricane Florence approaches coast, Williamsburg area urged to prepare for worst

The spaghetti models for Hurricane Florence as of Tuesday afternoon. (WYDaily/Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)
The spaghetti models for Hurricane Florence as of Tuesday afternoon. (WYDaily/Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)

At first glance, a plot of jagged lines might look like a child grabbed a crayon and scribbled over a map of the United States.

As Hurricane Florence approaches the East Coast, those lines have the full attention of meteorologists across the country.

Knows as the spaghetti models, the lines are computer-generated projections of the hurricane’s path. The bulk of the models foresee Florence smashing into the North Carolina coast before meandering inland over Raleigh or Charlotte.

Greater Williamsburg may be almost 300 miles north of Florence’s projected landfall, but the area may still feel tremendous effects from the storm, forecasters say. Schools, local governments and public transit have already announced closures — some more than 72 hours before the storm is expected to affect the area.

“I want to be hopeful, but the precautionary principle holds at this point: prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” said Randy Chambers, director of William & Mary’s Keck Environmental Field Lab.

Best and worst case scenarios

The models agree that Florence is an immensely powerful storm, and meteorologists are warning that it will bring immediate destruction wherever it comes ashore. Areas even hundreds of miles out of the path of the storm’s eye could experience tropical storm-force winds and a foot or more of rain over the span of a few days, likely meaning dangerous flooding and power outages.

(WYDaily/Courtesy National Hurricane Center)
(WYDaily/Courtesy National Hurricane Center)

Bob Henson, a meteorologist with Weather Underground and the National Weather Service, said there are no good outcomes for Hampton Roads — other than the hurricane making an unlikely turn back out to sea — but some of the storm’s potential tracks are distinctly worse than others.

If the storm hits North Carolina as expected, Henson said Greater Williamsburg could receive between 5 and 15 inches of rain.

If the storm were to make a surprise turn north, the region could see 20 inches of rain or more. The storm’s eye would also be much closer to Williamsburg, meaning winds would be substantially stronger than if the storm tracks south.

“The higher end is getting toward all-time record territory,” Henson said. “The only mitigating factor right now is that it will probably come ashore in southern North Carolina. That’s still not a done deal.”

If Florence follows most of the models into North Carolina, Greater Williamsburg would still likely be hit with enough wind and rain to rival some of the worst storms in recent memory, such as Isabel in 2003.

Soil turned soggy after a rainy summer will greet Florence after it makes rainfall and exacerbate its effects.

“We had a very wet summer with rainfall in 2003, so the soils were very wet when Isabel hit,” Chambers said. “Although the wind was not that strong, the soil was so saturated that trees just tipped over.”

Storm surge covers Gloucester Point, Virginia during Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
Storm surge covers Gloucester Point during Hurricane Isabel in 2003. (WYDaily file photo)

During Isabel, power was out for more than a week in many places across Hampton Roads as crews worked to remove downed trees and power lines. Florence could bring the same sort of destruction to Williamsburg, he said.

“There’s so much rain, there’s obviously going to be localized flooding,” Chambers said. “Having watched Hurricane Harvey down in Houston and seeing what that devastation was … I hope we don’t end up with something that traumatic.”

Harvey stalled over Houston and dumped around 5 feet of rain over a few days, causing catastrophic flooding. Likewise, Hurricane Sandy stalled off the New Jersey shore in 2012, causing more than $50 billion in damage.

“Keep in mind Sandy was a Category 3, and by the time it got to shore it was marginally even a hurricane,” Henson said. As of 11 p.m. Tuesday, Florence was a Category 4 hurricane.

Henson warns that Florence will likely slow down after making landfall, dropping huge amounts of rain across the Southeast.

The only thing stopping Florence from turning north is a high-pressure system over New England, Henson and Chambers said.

“It seems the weather prognosticators are saying that ridge is sufficiently strong enough that it’s not going to happen, but they always talk about that little wobble that happens right at the end before it hits land,” Chamber said. “It’s always a fear that something like that could happen.”

If that happens, however unlikely, the storm could be a regional catastrophe.

“People are talking about historic proportions,” Chambers said.

Unexpected consequences

Coastal flooding at the Jamestown Marina in October 2015 caused water to spill over the dock and into the parking lot. (Courtesy of Jan Walker/WYDaily file photo)

Even the best-case scenario isn’t appealing, the forecasters say.

If it stays south, Florence will continue to slog toward the Appalachian Mountains, pounding those areas of central and western Virginia and North Carolina with driving rain, Chambers said. Much of the areas inland are in the James River drainage basin and will eventually flow east.

“It’s going to be, I think, a massive flood pulse that may not arrive until days after the storm, but it’s going to be massive amount of water. It’s going to come our way,” Chambers said.

A storm surge could reach three feet above ground on the banks of the James River, according to the National Weather Service. If the surge has not moved back out to sea by the time water rolls in from the west, areas along the banks of the could see heavier-than-expected flooding.

Henson stressed that while the models may disagree on the storm’s path, he said it’s vital to understand the storm will be dangerous no matter when or where it lands.

“None of these [models] should be taken literally,” Henson said. “It just shows you the kinds of bizarre behavior the models are picking up on. They’re simply struggling to deal with the unusualness of the [storm].”

Residents still have more than 24 hours to brace themselves for whatever the storm may bring.

Chambers said that time should not be wasted.

“Be aware and be careful and heed what everyone is saying about getting prepared,” Chamber said.

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