Natural Disasters in North Carolina: What To Expect

Natural disasters are just a part of life on Earth. The same sure counts for living in North Carolina, too. Although there are plenty of places that are way more dangerous than the Tar Heel State, it still gets plenty of wild and frightening weather, among other disasters.

flag of North Carolina
flag of North Carolina

From pummeling hurricanes to punishing nor’easters, floods to fires, and even landslides to keep you on your toes, you’d be wise to prepare for the natural disasters that are endemic to North Carolina. You don’t need to be scared, but you should be prepared…

Keep reading and I will tell you everything you should know if you live, travel, or work in North Carolina…


You can do a lot worse than North Carolina when it comes to natural disasters, but you can do a lot better, too.

North Carolina is considered a medium-threat state for natural disasters primarily due to the prevalence of powerful storms such as hurricanes, nor’easters which can pound this coastal state, and also periodic severe thunderstorms.

These weather events invariably lead to significant property damage, flooding, and deaths year in and year out.

Hurricanes coming up from the Atlantic and Caribbean are major concerns for North Carolina’s coastal regions and even much further inland, as are nor’easters.

Nor’easters are basically hurricanes that form closer to the US northeast coast. Thunderstorms are also common throughout the state, leading to potential risks such as areal and flash floods.

While not as catastrophic as hurricanes or nor’easters, these storms can still pose a serious threat to people and infrastructure.

In addition to and mostly because of these storm-related threats, North Carolina also faces the risk of landslides, particularly in the mountainous regions.

Wildfires are another natural disaster threat in North Carolina. Although not as common or severe as in some western states, wildfires nonetheless occur quite often in NC, but most are dealt with fairly quickly.

Significant Flooding Ongoing In Coastal North Carolina

1. Floods

Floods are one of the most common natural disasters in North Carolina, and even though they are not the most spectacular, they are among the most destructive and deadly year to year.

North Carolina is especially prone to serious flood events since it has a lot of rivers, creeks and streams that can become over-filled with water after heavy rain or snowmelt, bursting their banks.

Combined with high amounts of rainfall annually, some of it from major storms that also bring in tons and tons of rain and storm surge, the stage is set for some pretty cataclysmic flooding.

North Carolina has been hit by several devastating flood events just in the 2000s, each causing widespread destruction and loss of life.

Hurricane Matthew in 2016 dumped a cataclysmic amount of rain on the state, killing 26 people and causing more than $1.5 billion in damages.

The flooding was so severe that many communities were completely cut off from the outside world for days on end.

Earlier in 2006, Tropical Storm Ernesto caused extensive flooding throughout central and eastern North Carolina, resulting in three deaths and over $100 million in damages.

All that from a “mere” tropical storm, not even a real hurricane. There are countless other tales of death and destruction caused by localized flooding from much smaller, local storms.

If you are living in or traveling to North Carolina, flood preparations must be at the top of your natural disaster response planning; nowhere in the state is truly safe from flooding, and all areas along the coast are highly vulnerable.

Hurricane Florence hits North Carolina coast

2. Hurricanes

You probably assumed as much based on the previous section alone, but North Carolina is indeed one of the US states most affected by hurricanes, with many devastating storms having hit over the past decades.

NC is located on the Atlantic Coast, which makes it especially vulnerable to direct hits from hurricanes.

The hurricane season typically runs from June through November, and each and every one of them could bring with it intense winds, inundating rainfall, and storm surges.

One of the most memorable hurricanes to directly impact North Carolina did a whole lot worse than cause flooding.

Hurricane Florence was a monstrous category 4 hurricane that caused over $24 billion in damages, making it one of the costliest hurricanes in US history.

There are plenty others besides, but the point is you shouldn’t think you have less to worry about during hurricane season just because you aren’t in Florida.

As always, preparation and planning are paramount; if you live in or are visiting North Carolina during hurricane season, make sure to know your evacuation routes ahead of time and maintain a kit of emergency supplies to use whether you stay or go, and leave when the leaving is good!

Don’t wait until the last minute when a hurricane is approaching.

Outer Banks feeling effects of nor'easter

3. Nor’easters

Nor’easters are sort of the cold weather counterparts to hurricanes; powerful storms that form along the East Coast of the US, and fed by cold air from the North Pole.

These huge storms are typically accompanied by strong winds, heavy rain, and snow (to make matters even worse), and can cause severe damage just like their better-known cousins.

While North Carolina does not experience as many nor’easters as some other states along the coast, especially compared to hurricanes, they can and do occur from time to time.

One notable example of a nor’easter in North Carolina was the so-called Superstorm of 1993. The storm brought heavy snowfall to the western part of the state, while the coast was battered by high waves and strong winds.

Whole regions of the state were left without power for several days, and many roads were closed due to severe flooding, downed power lines and fallen trees. A bad one!

Much like hurricanes, your response should be the same; plan ahead, know your evacuation routes and maintain an emergency kit. Don’t take a chance with these powerful storms!

Severe thunderstorm caught on camera at NC State in Raleigh

4. Severe Thunderstorms

You might think a common thunderstorm would be a comparative relief after dealing with hurricanes and nor’easters, but don’t be too quick to say thanks.

Severe thunderstorms are another common occurrence in North Carolina during the summer months.

These storms can bring lightning, hail, and strong winds, and will routinely cause damage to homes, businesses, and civic infrastructure.

As mentioned above flooding, one of the major threats in North Carolina, is easily caused by the torrential rains released by a thunderstorm.

And I regret to inform you once again that this is another natural threat you’ll have to be ready for no matter where you are in the state: severe storms are more likely to affect inland areas than the coast, but they can and will hit just about anywhere.

When they arrive, pay attention to weather forecasts and be ready to seek shelter if it looks like really strong winds or hail might be coming your way.

Flash floods causes landslides in North Carolina

5. Landslides

While not as common or as destructive on a regional basis as the other disasters on our list, landslides do occur in North Carolina.

Particularly likely in the mountainous western part of the state, heavy rainfall and rock slides can trigger landslides, which can devastate properties and utilities, and easily kill anyone caught in their path.

One of the most notable landslides in NC’s recent history happened in 2009, when sustained rains triggered a massive landslide in the resort town of Boone.

This landslide caused significant damage to homes and businesses, and forced several road closures due to debris and damage.

Amazingly, no one was injured in the landslide, but it didn’t take much imagination to understand how close everyone came to a bad ending. If you live anywhere near or on a mountainside or in a hilly region, you must be alert to landslide risk.

Keep an eye out for warning signs, such as cracked pavement and sagging buildings, and keep a close watch on the weather forecast if torrential rain is predicted; landslides can be triggered by just one major downpour with little warning.

On the other hand, if you live in the low country you won’t have much to worry about.

Huge wildfire burning in N.E. North Carolina now partially under control

6. Wildfires

North Carolina experiences a relatively high number of wildfires each year, but most of them are small and easily contained, and rarely result in major destruction or human casualties.

Wildfires can, though, occur throughout the state, with the highest risk areas being in the western part of the state, where the terrain is more rugged and forested.

One wildfire that was neither small nor easily contained was the Party Rock Fire, which burned over 7,000 acres of land, causing many evacuations and road closures in the affected area.

Over 1,000 firefighters worked to contain the blaze, and it took several weeks to fully extinguish it.

While hardly as severe as some wildfires in other parts of the country, the Party Rock Fire served as a reminder of the danger of wildfires in general, and in North Carolina included.

You must be on guard if you live in the remote areas of the state, and always have an evac plan during elevated risk times.

What are the Least Disaster-prone Areas in North Carolina?

Broadly speaking, the counties along the coast are more vulnerable to various disasters and accordingly more dangerous.

Conversely, the counties to the west in the high country are less dangerous overall, though more vulnerable to specific disasters as described above.

According to FEMA’s risk assessments, Polk, Addison, Ashe and Stokes counties are among the safest across all circumstances and events.

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