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College of Sciences
Hurricane Florence: How We Helped Our State

Hurricane Florence
How We Helped Our State

Hurricane Florence: How We Helped Our State

The storm ravaged North Carolina like few others have. Our scientists were there to help.

Hurricane Florence came ashore near Wilmington, N.C., on Sept. 14, 2018, following days of worried watching and waiting throughout the Carolinas. Though it weakened as it approached the coast, making landfall as a Category 1 storm, its size and slow forward movement left devastating effects on coastal regions. Wilmington and surrounding areas suffered extensive flooding and face months, or even years, of cleanup and rebuilding.

Students and faculty from across the College of Sciences shared their knowledge and mobilized research efforts to assist with everything from predicting the storm’s track to assessing its environmental impacts. Here are just some of the ways we made a difference.

Expert Voices

Before, during and after the storm, media outlets called on faculty from around the college to provide expertise on everything from the storm’s track to its effects on wildlife. Some examples:

  • Before the storm made landfall, Gary Lackmann discussed what made Florence unique and described its potential effects on the N.C. coast on CNN.
  • The Verge talked to several scientists, including Ann Ross, Heather Patisaul and David Eggleston, about how they were preparing their labs for storm damage or power outages prior to the storm’s landfall.
  • David Eggleston talked to National Geographic about the effects of hurricane-induced freshwater flooding on wildlife in saltwater ecosystems. He’s since been sampling water quality and oyster populations in Pamlico Sound.
  • Adrian Smith discussed fire ants, which self-assemble into giant rafts to survive floods, on CNN and in The Charlotte Observer.

Alumni in Action

Sciences alumni were also on the front lines of predicting and studying the storm.

These alumni include a number of forecasters working at the National Hurricane Center. As the branch chief of the center’s Hurricane Specialist Unit, meteorology alumnus Michael Brennan played a key role in both tracking Florence and sharing important information about the storm with the public. He talked with prominent news outlets, including PBS NewsHour, The Wall Street Journal and The Miami Herald about the hurricane and its path, as well as broader topics like why the “cone of uncertainty” isn’t the only area of danger.

Some meteorology alumni got up close and personal with Florence. As part of the U.S. Air Force’s “Hurricane Hunters” squadron, Major Tobi Baker and his team flew into the storm’s eye to drop sensors that gathered key data on wind speed, intensity, pressure, temperature and other measurements. Neil Jacobs, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deputy administrator, also flew into Florence and gave interviews about its makeup.

“The data we collected was paramount in providing accurate forecasts to lead to prompt advisories, watches and warnings to the coastal states hit by this hurricane,” Baker said.

Maj. Tobi Baker watches the radar and analyzes weather data during a recent Hurricane Hunters flight. Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force.

Baker's Hurricane Hunters plane flies into the eye wall of Hurricane Florence.

Resources at the Ready

The State Climate Office of North Carolina, which is part of the college, is a weather and climate resource for the state’s government agencies, businesses and residents. The office logged five million data queries through its online database system last year.

Education and outreach are a big part of the office’s charge. Its staff played a key role in helping keep the public informed about Florence and its effects, using Twitter to share data on wind speed and precipitation collected at its coastal weather stations, as well as weather advisories and other updates.

On Sept. 18, the office posted a comprehensive Florence recap, looking at how it formed, peak winds and storm surge, and the accuracy of the forecast track, among other data points.

Assessing the Aftermath

Just days after the storm blew through North Carolina, students from biogeochemist Chris Osburn’s lab navigated around flooded roads to travel to the eastern part of the state. Their goal: to determine how storm-induced flooding of the Neuse River might affect downstream estuaries.

The researchers had tested the river chemistry and water quality before the storm and took new measurements following the storm for comparison. They found flooding caused by Florence dramatically increased carbon flow to the ocean and made the Neuse more acidic, which means harsher conditions for aquatic life in the downstream estuary. They talked to a local news station in Greenville, N.C., about their work.

Watch the interview
From Streets Ferry Bridge, Osburn Lab graduate student Cindy Lebrasse collects water samples from the flooded Neuse River.

Emergency Response

When officials from the Durham Emergency Operations Center needed extra assistance during the storm, they reached out to professor of marine, earth, and atmospheric sciences Gary Lackmann. Four senior undergraduate meteorology students from his class volunteered at the center around the clock for three days during the storm, interpreting weather data and assisting with briefings. The county is interested in continuing the partnership.

“The students did fantastic work for us,” said Ryan Campbell, emergency management planner with Durham County Emergency Management. “They provided critical information on tornadoes, rainfall and flooding.”

NC State meteorology students work with Durham officials in the Durham Emergency Operations Center during Hurricane Florence.

A Safe Haven

Located along the Bogue Sound shoreline in Morehead City, N.C., NC State’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology (CMAST) is a coastal and marine science research, outreach and educational facility. Following Hurricane Florence, the center’s nearby dormitories became temporary housing for displaced coastal residents and relief workers.

NC State’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology is located on the Bogue Sound in Morehead City, N.C.

Carteret County officials contacted CMAST shortly after the storm passed through about using some of the center’s unoccupied dorm space to house families who were forced out of their homes, as well as volunteers and other workers who were in the area temporarily to assist with storm recovery. The two-bedroom units allowed families, especially those with special needs, to stay together in a more comfortable space than the temporary shelters that had been set up in large spaces like school gyms.

“At the time we were in a bind to find sheltering options for citizens, and they were more than willing to open that up for us,” said Stephen Rea, emergency services director for Carteret County. “It was definitely a plus for us to have a partner in the CMAST folks.”

Cover image: A pickup truck drives on a flooded road past a farmhouse that is surrounded by flooded fields from Tropical Storm Florence in Hyde County, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

CATEGORIES: Alumni & Friends, Biological Sciences, Faculty, General News, In the Community, Magazine, Marine, Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, November 2018, Research and Innovation

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