Effects of Hurricane Isabel in North Carolina

Hurricane Isabel
Category 2 hurricane (SSHWS/NWS)
Hurricane Isabel 18 sept 2003 1555Z.jpg
Hurricane Isabel approaching North Carolina's Outer Banks
Winds1-minute sustained: 105 mph (165 km/h)
Pressure957 mbar (hPa); 28.26 inHg
Fatalities1 direct, 2 indirect
Damage$450 million (2003 USD)
Areas affectedOuter Banks,
eastern North Carolina
Part of the 2003 Atlantic hurricane season
Part of a series on Hurricane Isabel

Hurricane Isabel of the 2003 Atlantic hurricane season produced moderate to heavy damage across eastern North Carolina, United States. Isabel formed from a tropical wave on September 6, 2003 in the tropical Atlantic Ocean. It moved northwestward, and within an environment of light wind shear and warm waters it steadily strengthened to reach peak winds of 165 mph (265 km/h) on September 11. After fluctuating in intensity for four days, Isabel gradually weakened and made landfall on the Outer Banks of North Carolina with winds of 105 mph (165 km/h) on September 18. It quickly weakened over land and became extratropical over western Pennsylvania the next day.

Totaling $450 million (2003 USD, $625 million 2020 USD), Isabel's damage in the state was heaviest in Dare County, where storm surge flooding and strong winds damaged thousands of houses. The storm surge produced a 2,000 foot (600 m) wide inlet on Hatteras Island, isolating Hatteras by road for two months. Strong winds downed hundreds of trees of across the state, leaving up to 700,000 residents without power. Most areas with power outages had power restored within a few days. The hurricane directly killed one person and indirectly killed two in the state.


Radar image of Isabel making landfall

By 4 days before Isabel made landfall, most computer models predicted Isabel to make landfall between North Carolina and New Jersey, and the National Hurricane Center consistently forecast a landfall on North Carolina.[1][2] Initially, forecasters predicted a landfall in the northeastern portion of the state,[1] though as the hurricane neared land the predicted landfall position was much closer to where it ultimately was. From three days in advance, the average track forecast error for its landfall was only 36 miles (58 km), and for 48 hours in advance the average track error was 18 miles (29 km). Strong confidence in Isabel's final landfall prompted the National Hurricane Center to issue a hurricane watch for the entire North Carolina coastline about 50 hours before Isabel struck land. 38 hours before the hurricane made landfall, the National Hurricane Center upgraded the watch to a hurricane warning for the landfall area.[3] The Newport Weather Forecast Office issued a flood potential statement two days before landfall, which indicated a threat for flash flooding. The office began preparing for the hurricane one week before landfall, and brought additional staff members to assist with hurricane related duties.[4]

Evacuation orders began on September 16, when officials issued a voluntary evacuation for portions of four counties and one entire county. By around 24 hours before landfall, mandatory evacuations were ordered for eight counties, all of which but one were for the entire counties. All coastal counties from Cape Fear northward were under a mandatory evacuation. A survey of 603 residents in northeastern North Carolina indicated 57% of residents along the Outer Banks and 77% of residents in storm surge-prone areas of the Pamlico Sound did not evacuate despite being under a mandatory evacuation. The two primary reasons stated for the residents' evacuation decisions were the hurricane's strength and track. The media and statements from officials were two other reasons. 70% of people along the Outer Banks heard the official evacuation notices, though only 30% of residents near the Pamlico Sound heard the notices. A majority of the respondents to the survey who heard the evacuation notices left the area. None of the surveyed evacuees from the Outer Banks went to a public shelter; 60% went to a friend or a relative's house and 24% went to a motel. Evacuees on the Outer Banks generally went elsewhere in North Carolina or to Virginia. For evacuees around the Pamlico Sound, only 9% left for a public shelter, while 75% left for a friend or relative's house. Most near the Pamlico Sound remained in their own neighborhood or own county. Of the 19 North Carolina counties issuing evacuation orders, the duration of the evacuation process varied between 3 hours to 12 hours in Dare County. Five counties reported heavy amounts of traffic, while traffic problems included stalled cars along roads, inadequate route signing, and flooded or damaged roads.[5]

By the morning of the hurricane's landfall, 65 shelters were prepared with a capacity of 95,000 people. The American Red Cross prepared 100 feeding vehicles in staging areas, and deployed two mobile kitchens each with the capacity to provide 10,000 meals per day. Additionally, five Southern Baptist Convention kitchens were on standby, in total being able to provide 20,000 meals per day.[6]


Storm tides

Hurricane Isabel produced hurricane-force wind gusts throughout eastern North Carolina. The winds downed hundreds of trees, leaving about 700,000 people without power across the state.[4] Damage from the hurricane totaled about $450 million (2003 USD, ($625 million 2020 USD)).[7] Three people were killed in the state, a utility worker attempting to restore electricity and two by falling trees.[8]

Outer Banks

Damage to the Barrier Islands after Hurricane Isabel (USGS)

Hurricane Isabel first began affecting North Carolina about 15 hours before it struck land. Upon making landfall along the Outer Banks, the hurricane produced strong waves of 15 to 25 feet (4.5 to 6 m) in height and a storm surge of about 6 to 8 feet (1.8 to 2.4 m).[4] Waters reached a height of 7.15 feet (2.18 m) in Hatteras.[9] Storm tides along the coast peaked at 7.7 feet (2.3 m) in Cape Hatteras, though the total could be higher there due to the tide gauge being destroyed by the hurricane.[4] The surge and waves created a new inlet by washing out a portion of Hatteras Island between Hatteras and Frisco. Unofficially named Isabel Inlet, the break was 2,000 feet (600 m) wide and 15 feet (5 m) deep, and consisted of three distinct channels. The formation of the inlet destroyed a portion of North Carolina Highway 12,[10] and also washed out three homes,[4] dunes, power lines, and utility pipes.[11] The new inlet destroyed all utility connections to Hatteras Village, isolating the residents there. The storm surge and waves from Isabel also resulted in a breach between Hatteras and Hatteras Inlet. The breach, which nearly became an inlet, formed from the flow of ocean water across the island, though it was not deep enough for a constant water flow. The breach occurred in an area without roads or houses, and had little impact on Hatteras residents.[11] Rough surf and storm surge caused overwash and severe beach erosion throughout the Outer Banks, with flooding in Ocracoke reportedly being up to waist-high.[12] The hurricane produced an estimated 4 inches (100 mm) of rain throughout most of the Outer Banks, with Duck reporting a peak of 4.72 inches (120 mm). Wind gusts in association with the hurricane peaked at 105 mph (170 km/h) in Ocracoke, with several other locations reporting hurricane-force gusts.[12]

Wind and water damage across the Outer Banks was extensive. Strong waves and the storm surge from Hurricane Isabel knocked about 30 to 40 houses and several motels off of their pilings.[12] Two families who did not evacuate were nearly swept out to sea when their home was destroyed. Local rescue was unable to reach them; however, they were ultimately able to reach safety.[4] The rough waves greatly affected piers in Nags Head, Rodanthe, and Frisco, with three being completely destroyed. Several locations along North Carolina Highway 12 were partially washed out or covered with debris, and 15 foot (4.5 m) sections of pavement on both sides of a bridge near Ocracoke were washed away. Strong waves destroyed a beach access ramp, as well.[12] Several thousand homes and businesses were damaged by the passage of the hurricane, and damage in Dare County totalled nearly $350 million (2003 USD, ($486 million 2020 USD)). In the Outer Banks, no deaths or injuries were reported.[7]

Southeast North Carolina

Destroyed house on the Outer Banks

The effects of Hurricane Isabel were generally light in the southeastern portion of the state. Sustained winds reached 72 mph (116 km/h) offshore in the Frying Pan Shoals, where a gust of 82 mph (132 km/h) was also reported. Sustained winds were lighter along the coast, peaking at 45 mph (72 km/h) at the Wilmington International Airport, while gusts reached 66 mph (106 km/h) at a North Carolina State Ports Authority facility in Wilmington. Tropical storm force wind gusts were reported as far inland as Lumberton, where gusts reached 52 mph (54 km/h). The large circulation of Isabel dropped moderate rainfall across the area, peaking at 4.51 inches (115 mm) in Whiteville. Additionally, weather radars estimated over 5 inches (125 mm) of precipitation fell in portions of New Hanover County. The rainfall resulted in ponding on roadways, though no severe flooding was reported. Storm tides were generally around 1 foot (0.3 m) above normal,[13] though Wilmington reported a storm tide of 3.22 feet (1 m).[4] Rough waves resulted in moderate beach erosion near Cape Fear and minor erosion along eastward-facing beaches north of Cape Fear.[13]

Damage was minor in southeast North Carolina. Moderate winds inflicted isolated shingle and siding damage along barrier islands. The winds downed several trees, some onto cars and houses. Brief power outages were also reported.[13] Beach erosion damaged a bridge in Bald Head Island, as well.[14] In Chowan County, a business parking lot was under several feet of water due to flash flooding.[15] One person was indirectly killed in Carteret County when trying to restore electricity.[12]


Damage in Edenton

Isabel produced strong winds throughout inland areas of eastern North Carolina. Plymouth, located 75 miles (120 km) from where the hurricane made landfall, reported gusts to 95 mph (155 km/h). Sustained winds were lighter, with only a few locations receiving tropical storm strength winds. The passage of the hurricane resulted in moderate rainfall of up to 6.02 inches (153 mm) in Havelock. Upon making landfall, Isabel produced moderate to severe storm surges along the Pamlico and Neuse Rivers, with a location in Craven County reporting a storm tide of 10.5 feet (3.2 m) above normal.[12]

The strong storm surge produced significant flooding in Harlowe and Oriental. Several other locations also reported flooding of streets and low-lying areas. The rise of water flooded many homes in Craven County and the eastern portions of Carteret and Pamlico counties.[12] Emergency personnel performed many rescues to people who had not evacuated and had become trapped by storm surge flooding. Several eyewitnesses reported high velocity, waist deep water moving homes, trailers, and other objects many yards inland. As the water retreated, these objects were then dragged back towards the sound. A 5 to 8 foot (1.5 to 2.4 m) storm surge struck the western portion of the Albemarle Sound, with significant surge flooding occurring to the west of Edenton. There, the surge destroyed four homes, two of which were moved up to 20 feet (6.1 m) off their concrete block foundations. Nearly 60 percent of all homes and business in Chowan County suffered some structural damage due to wind, many of which were the result of large falling trees. One woman died when a tree fell on her vehicle in Chowan County.[4]


Hundreds of residents were stranded in Hatteras following the formation of the new inlet created by rising waters. Many parts of North Carolina Highway 12 were partially washed or damaged, which slowed recovery efforts and the return of homeowners in the Outer Banks.[8] Sections of the highway were closed to one lane. The ferry between Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island was temporarily closed due to damage after the hurricane, though a small passenger ferry remained available for Hatteras Village residents and emergency workers. People who were not residents were not allowed to be on the Outer Banks for two weeks after the hurricane due to damaged road conditions. When visitors were allowed to return, many ventured to see the new inlet, despite a 1-mile (1.6 km) walk from the nearest road.[11]

Initially, long-term solutions to the Isabel Inlet such as building a bridge or a ferry system were considered, though they were ultimately cancelled in favor of pumping sand and filling the inlet. Coastal geologists were opposed to the solution, stating the evolution of the Outer Banks is dependent on inlets from hurricanes.[10] Dredging operations began on October 17, about a month after the hurricane struck. The United States Geological Survey used sand from the ferry channel to the southwest of Hatteras Island, a choice made to minimize impact to submerged aquatic vegetation and due to the channel being filled somewhat during the hurricane.[16] On November 22, about two months after the hurricane struck, Highway 12 and Hatteras Island were reopened to public access. On the same day, the ferry between Hatteras and Ocracoke was reopened. The breach on the southern end of Hatteras Island was filled in with sand, as well.[11]

Hardware stores experienced great demand for portable generators, chain saws, dehumidifiers, and air movers following the passage of the hurricane. Utility crews from across the country came to the state to assist in returning power,[8] though power outages persisted for several days.[11] Over 2,500 utility members worked, in some cases around the clock, to restore the power. One power company restored power to 68% of its affected customers by the day after Isabel passed through the area.[17] By four days after landfall, 83,000 customers were without power, down from its peak of several hundred thousand.[18]

Counties declared as Disaster Areas

Hours after Isabel made landfall, President George W. Bush issued a major disaster declaration for 26 North Carolina counties, which allowed the use of federal personnel, equipment and lifesaving systems and the delivery of heavy-duty generators, plastic sheeting, tents, cots, food, water, medical aid and other essential supplies and materials for sustaining human life. The declaration also allocated federal funds for the long-term recovery of hurricane-stricken residents and business owners, as well as providing federal funds for the state and local governments to pay 75 percent of the eligible cost for debris removal and emergency services related to the hurricane, including requested emergency work undertaken by the federal government.[19] By four days after the emergency declaration, assistance checks were mailed and used by residents to pay for what was not covered by their insurance.[18]

By four days after landfall, FEMA served around 68,000 meals to displaced families. More than a dozen disaster recovery centers were initiated throughout the state. FEMA provided 125,000 pounds of ice in the first few days, and prepared 200,000 pounds of ice and 180,000 liters of water for the following week[18] for the remaining communities without water. By six days after Isabel struck the state, all hospitals were opened and all roads excluding North Carolina Highway 12 were passable due to emergency crews clearing roads with debris.[20] By about one month after the hurricane struck, 32,560 North Carolina residents applied for federal assistance, with disaster aid totaling about $50 million (2003 USD, ($69.5 million 2020 USD)). Subsequent disaster declarations ultimately declared 47 North Carolina counties as disaster areas.[21] By 12 weeks after the hurricane passed through the state, 54,425 residents applied for federal assistance, with disaster aid totaling $155.2 million (2003 USD, ($216 million 2020 USD)).[22]

See also


  1. ^ a b Avila (2003). "Hurricane Isabel Discussion Thirty-Three". National Hurricane Center. Retrieved 2006-11-19.
  2. ^ National Hurricane Center (2003). "Hurricane Isabel Advisory Archive". Retrieved 2006-11-19.
  3. ^ Jack Beven; Hugh Cobb (2003). "Hurricane Isabel Tropical Cyclone Report". National Hurricane Center. Archived from the original on 2013-11-14. Retrieved 2006-11-20. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2004). "Hurricane Isabel Service Assessment" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2005-05-04. Retrieved 2006-11-24. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)
  5. ^ Post, Buckley, Schuh and Jernigan (2005). "Hurricane Isabel Assessment, a Review of Hurricane Evacuation Study Products and Other Aspects of the National Hurricane Mitigation and Preparedness Program (NHMPP) in the Context of the Hurricane Isabel Response" (PDF). NOAA. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-02-05. Retrieved 2006-11-27. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ FEMA (2003). "North Carolina Mass Care Update". Archived from the original on 2012-02-05. Retrieved 2006-12-04. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)
  7. ^ a b National Climatic Data Center (2003). "Event Report for North Carolina". Archived from the original on 2011-05-19. Retrieved 2006-12-06. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)
  8. ^ a b c Sunbelt Rentals (2003). "Hurricane Isabel Aftermath" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2005-03-07. Retrieved 2006-12-09.
  9. ^ Kriehn (2003). "Coastal Water Level Rises Associated with Hurricane Isabel". NOAA. Archived from the original on 2011-09-27. Retrieved 2011-10-13. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)
  10. ^ a b John Roach (2003). "Shoring Up N. Carolina Islands: A Losing Battle?". National Geographic News. Retrieved 2006-12-05.
  11. ^ a b c d e Fred Hurteau (2003). "The Dynamic Landscape of the Outer Banks". Outer Banks Guidebook. Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2006-12-05. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)
  12. ^ a b c d e f g Kriehn (2003). "Hurricane Isabel Impacts Eastern North Carolina". NOAA. Archived from the original on February 4, 2005. Retrieved 2006-12-05.
  13. ^ a b c Wilmington, North Carolina National Weather Service (2003). "Hurricane Isabel in Southeast North Carolina". Archived from the original on 2008-07-09. Retrieved 2006-12-06. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)
  14. ^ National Climatic Data Center (2003). "Event Report for Southeast North Carolina". Archived from the original on 2011-05-19. Retrieved 2006-12-06. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)
  15. ^ NCDC (2003). "Event Report for Southeast North Carolina (2)". Archived from the original on 2011-05-19. Retrieved 2006-12-06. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)
  16. ^ Federal Emergency Management Agency (2003). "Dredging Operations Begin". Archived from the original on 2006-10-06. Retrieved 2006-12-16. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)
  17. ^ United States Department of Energy (2003). "Hurricane Isabel Situation Report: September 19, 2003" (PDF). Retrieved 2006-12-16.
  18. ^ a b c Federal Emergency Management Agency (2003). "Hurricane Isabel Update". Archived from the original on 2010-04-08. Retrieved 2006-12-16. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)
  19. ^ Federal Emergency Management Agency (2003). "President Orders Disaster Aid For North Carolina Hurricane Victims". Archived from the original on 2010-04-08. Retrieved 2006-12-16. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)
  20. ^ Federal Emergency Management Agency (2003). "Hurricane Isabel Update (2)". Archived from the original on 2011-09-14. Retrieved 2006-12-16. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)
  21. ^ Federal Emergency Management Agency (2003). "Disaster Aid For North Carolina Nears $50 Million In First Month; More Than 32,000 Apply For Assistance". Archived from the original on 2010-06-08. Retrieved 2006-12-16. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)
  22. ^ FEMA (2003). "State/Federal Disaster Aid Tops $155 Million". Archived from the original on 2006-10-03. Retrieved 2006-12-16. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)