Cape Carteret & Emerald Isle Survived Hurricane Irene


Emerald Isle Beaches survive Irene

On Friday, August 27, Hurricane Irene paid us a visit with the outer bands of rain first starting around 5 PM that afternoon.

The storm’s winds were howling well before we went to bed that evening.  Irene continued to pound us all day Saturday.  Only at 5 PM on Saturday did I venture out to start our generator as the winds slowed and the rain finally started to back off.

While I have no accurate way of measuring the winds, from my experience, I would judge our winds in the 75-80 MPH range.  Our power went out at 11 AM on Saturday.  We had somewhere between eleven and fifteen inches of rain, but our power was back on by 1 AM Sunday just fourteen hours after we lost it.  I never took my boat off my side pole lift where it was secured to my pickup truck and bulkhead.

Sunday evening we had an ice cream cone at the Sweet Spot on Emerald Isle about seven miles from our house.  Monday, I walked over 5.3 miles on the beaches at the Point on Emerald Isle and marveled at the additional twelve to fifteen acres of sand that Irene added to the beach there.

Other than the destruction of some well loved bottle trees at a remote local beach, the  worst damage I saw in the area was the shed roof of Winberry’s Produce peeled back, a boat with a tree across it, some missing siding, and shingles.

But the headlines of the national newspapers and the evening news are all about the devastation and flooding that Irene caused in New Jersey, New York, and Vermont.

How is it that an area only 33 miles from where Irene made landfall escaped with only minor damage?

Some of it is luck, but there are also elements of topography, hydrology, history, location, planning, and preparation that are part of the story.

A little background will make things clearer.

In my mind’s eye I can still see the water up to the axles of the car as my mother drove us away from Hurricane Hazel in 1954.  I was five years old then, and 57 years later it is still a vivid memory.  That day we retreated to our home in Lewisville, a small town outside Winston-Salem located in the relative safety of North Carolina’s Piedmont area.

With that memory still stuck in my head, it is something of a wonder that in 2004, my wife, Glenda, and I started looking for a home along the east coast.  We looked as far north as Assateague on Virginia’s eastern shore, and as far south as Oak Island, just south of Wilmington.

In deciding where to live, we carried with us a lot of experience gathered over the years.  Our lives have covered much of the east coast.  I lived for sixteen years in the Canadian Maritimes.  Glenda was there for fourteen years. Part of our time in Canada was on the shores of the Bay of Fundy where extreme weather often seemed like the norm rather than the exception.  I know that during my time on the Bay of Fundy, I saw winds approaching 100 miles per hours because the foam from the bay often blew the mile or so inland and froze around the power lines near our 200 year old home.

We also spent over twenty years in Roanoke, Virginia on the side of a mountain.  Winds of sixty to seventy miles per hour were not uncommon at our mountain home in Virginia.  We also got a taste of hurricanes in Roanoke.  Hurricane Hugo welcomed us to Roanoke in September 1989 when it crashed a tree into the screen porch of our new home just before closing.  Living in Roanoke also taught us that eleven or twelve inches of rain could make mountain valleys deadly.  Many times we saw the main road in Roanoke, Route 419, flooded by heavy rain storms often spawned by the remnants of hurricanes as they approached the Blue Ridge mountains.

While I did a lot of studying of maps and hurricane tracks when picking our next home, one of the most influential factors which helped our decision to move to western Carteret County was the presence of old buildings both in Swansboro and Beaufort dating back to the 1700s.  My research showed that hurricanes, like Hurricane Donna in 1960, sometimes visit the area, but I also discovered that the area offers a degree of protection from hurricanes. To start with Carteret County goes downhill from west to east. The farther east you live in Carteret County, the closer to sea level you are.

Most people have a picture in their minds of barrier islands as a narrow strand of sand. Fortunately there are serious barrier islands like Emerald Isle.  Emerald Isle at the western end between us and the Atlantic is far different from the northern Outer Banks and Route 12 north of Buxton.  Emerald Isle is heavily treed and is a substantial island.  Living in Bluewater Cove up the White Oak River north of Emerald Isle is far different from living in Rodanthe or South Nags Head.

A few years living on the Bay Fundy in Nova Scotia is a good life lesson.  Those years imprinted exactly what happens when a large body of water get forced into a narrow space. There is nothing like tides of twenty-eight feet to get that principle across.  Our Bay of Fundy experience was one reason we ruled out living up a bay with a huge of expanse of water in front of us.  When the wind starts blowing that water, it has to go someplace even if that place is around your house. If a large body of water like Pamilico Sound has nothing between it and your doorstep, there is a good chance you will find it on your doorstep one day.  New Bern and Oriental are good cases in point.

Still we wanted to live on the water and knew that our decision would likely put us in a floodplain.   However, one really good thing about living in North Carolina, is that the state has been dealing with hurricanes for years.  Homes are built to some serious standards, and I felt comfortable living in a new home that was built to sit above the 100 year flooding like our home does.

However, until you live in a home, and it is tested, you really don’t know what to expect.  On September 30, 2010, we had an amazing 20.25 inches of rain at our home in less than 8 hours.  While the moisture was widespread and impacted the whole drainage area of the White Oak River, we came through the situation fine.  The water just got to the top of our dock, and when the tide started going out, the water went out while the torrential rain continued for another four hours.  There is some benefit to having a two-mile wide tidal river as a drain.

Still our 2010 event had no wind so we had not experienced any wind greater than 35-45 MPH while living in Carteret County.  With that in mind, we prepared meticulously for Hurricane Irene.  All our outside furniture was either moved inside or tied with bungee cords to the deck railing.  We bought a generator to add to the emergency supplies we had collected over the years.  We stockpiled some food, water, and basic necessities and waited for Irene’s impact.

Irene turned out to be a really good test.  Skip Waters, one of the local weathermen, said that Irene was one of the worst if not the worst storm he had seen in his 29 years in the area. While he had seen storms with more wind or rain, none lasted as long and had the combination of wind that wouldn’t stop and rain that kept pouring down.

As these flood pictures show, our home was in no danger as it is several feet above the level of our dock.  The water was also lower than what we saw in the event in 2010.  While I was sorry to see some places that we had considered as home locations flood, I was pleased not to be there when they flooded.

There is a little magic on being on a tidal river with a couple of bridges constricting its entrance. Our river is a short one with lots of marshes to absorb water and a watershed area that is relatively small.  We also have no cities on the White Oak, and there is huge area of marsh behind Emerald Isle and between us and the Atlantic Ocean.  Because of the way our house is situated, our worst winds are from the southwest.  We mostly got east and north winds from Irene.

I am also very thankful for the long term planning of Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative.   Being only a couple of miles from their impressive power poles likely had something to do with our power being restored so quickly.

Of course the next time around, Mother Nature could deal more severely with us, but for now we are pleased that our prayers were answered.  It certainly didn’t hurt that we were well prepared.

As we continue to hear of areas without power or still flooded, I am happy to report that beyond a few trees downed and some limbs pruned from standing trees, there was little or no damage in our neighborhood.  One neighbor did have a tree fall across his boat and total it.

Still I would just as soon not be tested with another hurricane this year.  As the news picture I saw recently of a  family sitting on the steps of their destroyed 1903 Albemarle Sound cottage showed, what Mother Nature spares one year can be quickly taken another time.  It is a price you pay for living in an area of amazing natural splendor.

Beyond knowing that Mother Nature always has the upper hand,  I will continue to be vigilant while enjoying this spectacularly beautiful area.  I believe the risks of living here are well worth what we get in return.  Irene even added a lot of sand to beaches over by the Point on Emerald Isle.  You can follow my hike (ignore the out of date Google aerial photo which indicates I can walk on water) at this link.  I also posted a lot of pictures of my hike at this Picasa web albums site.

For people looking for damage photos, there are almost none from this area.





Waiting for Irene

Swansboro Harbor seen from ICW

Swansboro Harbor seen from ICW

After living here on the North Carolina coast for five years, we are finally faced with a serious hurricane.

Just how close Hurricane Irene will pass from our area won’t be known until later this week.  At our home, we are about as prepared as we can be at this point.  There are some things that we won’t do until we have a better idea of how close Irene will come to the area.

We will decide whether or not to bungee down the deck furniture on Friday. At that time I will also decide how much extra gas to buy for the generator.  I will probably also get a cooler full of ice on Friday in case we just have a short term power outage.  We already have all our emergency supplies.  I also won’t tie down the boat and put it on storm footing until the last moment since I hope to keep monitoring the water at least in the river until the last moment.

When we selected our home in June of 2006, we considered a lot of things, and how a hurricane might impact our area was one of them.  When we started our home search, we consider a number of spots on the east coast from Assateague Island on Virginia’s eastern shore to Oak Island south of Wilmington.

Included in the places we evaluated were Hatteras Island, Nags Head, and Ocracoke Island.  Those three spots had been some of our favorite vacation spots, but when we tried to imagine ourselves living that far out in the ocean, we just couldn’t do it.  We’ve lived in the South long enough to know how often the Outer Banks have been evacuated.

One of my earliest memories as a child is my mother driving us away from Nags Head as a storm approached.  I can still remember the tires of the car in deep water.

If you have spent significant time on North Carolina’s coast, you know the land varies widely along the barrier islands.  There are places like Canadian Hole near Buxton and Emerald Isle near Third Street Beach where the strands of sand are very narrow. There are also places like Hatteras Island and portions of Emerald Isle where the islands have dense vegetation.  Emerald Isle also has hills and some high ground.

I actually feel pretty good with the wide part of Emerald Isle between us and the Atlantic Ocean.  While there is no doubt that water can surge up the White Oak, it is somewhat constricted by the bridges in Swansboro and the causeway in Cedar Point.  The river also widens after the bridges.  In the three miles to Bluewater Cove, the river grows to nearly two miles in width.  From looking at flood maps it appears that historically flooding has been worse up the river where it once again starts to narrow.

However, since we live on a tidal river, a lot depends on when Irene visits us.  It looks now like Irene will pass closest to us around 8 AM on Saturday morning if the forecast issued early on Thursday morning is correct.   We will have an outgoing tide as Irene departs.  With a potential of four to six inches of rain and a surge of around three feet, we are likely to see water over the top of our dock like we saw on September 30 of last year.

The good news is that when the tide goes out on a two mile wide river, the water goes down.  We saw that happen on September 30 last year when we got 20.25 inches of rain in less than eight hours.  While it rained very hard for another four hours after the water got over my dock, the water started dropping as soon as the tide started going out.  I am counting on that happening again, but we will have to see what happens.

Irene looks like she is going to give a number of cities north of us lots of trouble.  Accuweather has provided an interesting table that showed forecast impacts for major US cities.

Certainly as you look at the picture in the post of Swansboro Harbor taken the morning of August 24 or this sunset picture take around 8PM the same day, you would guess that a hurricane is on the horizon.  We did see one person putting up plywood for storm shutters.

I am thankful that we have lots of weather people to warn us when storms take aim at the coast.  I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to prepare for a storm that you didn’t even know existed.

There will be more reports here on preparation for Irene in the coming days.

Beautiful morning in the Cove

Nice morning in Bluewater Cove

Nice morning in Bluewater Cove

Finally we are back to some normal weather.  August 15, we got up to a 68F morning temperature.  The first thing that I did was go upstairs and throw some windows open to catch the early morning breeze.

When I headed out on my morning walk around the boardwalk here in Bluewater Cove, it was impossible not to notice the change in the air.  I don’t know how long it will last, but the muggy air of the last few weeks seems to have disappeared.

Temperatures in the sixties will do a lot for us.  First our late season tomato plants can finally set some fruit.  Next it will cool off the area waters, and bring back some of our favorite fish.  There is already evidence of that.  This morning there were schools of bait swimming around our docks.  They have been absent in the recent heat.

My morning walk was hard to beat with a full moon over the cove and a light breeze coming from the northwest.  The moon was even reflected in the water.  I could tell from looking through my telephoto lens that the breeze was much stronger out on the White Oak River.

I also got to see two kingfishers engaged in a dogfight (birdfight?) over the water.   By watching closely I figured out where one of them landed and managed to get a pretty good picture of him considering the long distance of the shot.

When I came back to the house, I even convinced myself that the tomato plants looked happier after their rain bath from yesterday and this morning’s cool temperatures.

All in all it was a great morning walk and a fine way to start the day.  Likely when I get back from my morning appointment, I will take the boat our for a spin if the winds don’t get worse.

First it is time to pick some more tomatoes and try to sneak them in the house while my wife isn’t looking.

As a side note, on August 14, I updated my PDF map of the area.  It has a list of recommended restaurants.  After a meal last week that I would like to forget, I dropped one well known local restaurant from my list.   The food was so poorly cooked that I was felt the need to cook my own flounder dinner on Saturday night August 13.  Jimmy over at Clyde’s suggested we take home the six pound monster that was on ice at the counter, but we settled for one that was just shy of two pounds.

You can download the PDF and try to figure out which restaurant I dropped at my Welcome to the Beach page.

Swansboro Rules

Front Street Swansboro

Front Street Swansboro, Biggest Vehicle Wins

Some towns have lots of traffic signs.  Swansboro doesn’t, and visitors from out of town sometimes get a little confused.

Front Street in Swansboro is in theory a two-way street, but actually only has room for one vehicle at a time.  This of course requires that someone yield when two vehicles meet.

As far as I am concerned, the unwritten rule is that the biggest vehicle wins.   There are better odds of a small vehicle finding a place to pull over and let the bigger vehicle pass.  The good news is that people in general drive slowly and carefully on Front Street in Swansboro.  I cannot remember there being a collision on Front Street since I have been in the area.

Once in a while, someone who has never been on Front Street gets confused, but if a FedEx truck is bearing down on your shiny SUV, most people figure it out pretty quickly and find a spot to get out of the way.

While Front Street in nominally the main street in town, the real main drag is the harbor, and there is plenty of room there.  I actually go through the Swansboro Harbor more regularly than I go down Front Street, especially this time of year when I usually have the boat out four or five times at week.

Swansboro is great little town because it is real town, not just a tourist attraction.  People who live in the area enjoy walking the streets.  We spend more time on Front Street after the tourist season, but we aren’t afraid to venture into town at the peak of the season.  You can usually find parking, and the walk is almost always pleasant with a sea breeze.

We actually had breakfast at Yana’s on August 10, and the wait was very short.  The food was great, and we had a good time visiting some of the shops and going to the new Swansboro market that takes place every Wednesday and Saturday.  I got some great coconut macaroons.  My daughter from Northern Virginia really enjoyed the Tidewater Gallery and the Salty Sheep Yarn Shop.

I am looking forward to the day when we have some more public docking facilities in Swansboro.  I think it will make coming to town even more fun.  I wish someone would put in a grocery store with a dock.  I would rather get my groceries by boat than fight with parking at either Lowe’s or Food Lion.