The first lesson is one that I have known for a long time, hurricanes can do a lot of damage inland. We found that out living in the Virginia mountains over three hundred miles from the coast. However, a lot of people move to the coast and assume if they are few miles inland, they will be safe.
As is often the case, it is all about location. There are places that flood regularly thirty to sixty miles inland of the thin strand of sand along North Carolina's shore. There are also places on the beach or on water close to the beach that rarely flood.
You have to ask questions when looking for property, and most of all pay attention to the history of the area. One of things that comforted me when we moved to the Southern Outer Banks of Carteret County was the proximity of buildings from the 1700s in both Beaufort and Swansboro. While those buildings are no guarantee, they do help paint a picture of what has happened over time.
One of four things that you can do on your own is to go to NOAA's historical hurricane track site. Enter the place name of the closest town to the location you are considering, and then don't panic when you see all the lines because the records go back a long ways and include everything from tropical depressions on up.
Zoom into your location, and see what has happened in the past. Our location on the White Oak River has only had two category two storms in the last 150 years. One was Donna in 1960 and another was an unnamed storm in 1878. The 1878 storm was the only one that we were on the bad or right side of the storm.
However, due to the nature of hurricanes there might have been storms that were very significant locally that don't look particularly close on the map. That is why the last you can do is one of the most important.
The second thing you can do is find the area's flood mapping site. This is the location of North Carolina's flooding mapping site. Plug in the location of any home that you are considering, and the site will pull up the flood maps. However, you really need to be familiar with the area from the air because the site might well have the address slightly misplaced.
If you look at this image snapshot of my own home taken from the flood mapping site, you will see that I have marked the actual location of the house which is 700 feet into the flood zone instead of just outside of the flood zone.
One of the ways that you can know see to the exact location of a house you are considering is to do a little mapping on your own. I use a program on my Android smart phone called MyTracks. MyTracks does a great job of mapping your location, or you can use Google's built-in maps and a program called Lattitude which allows you to send your location by email. It you want the location of a home, just send yourself an email from Latitude while standing on the front steps.
MyTracks will also record your trip and save it to a Google map so you can view it on a computer. Just start it recording when you leave a home and stop it when you get back to a real estate office. That way you can do a drive by any properties that interest you on your own.
The third thing to do is view some flood surge maps. The maps only provide some broad guidance as you can see from this picture. However, they can set off some warning bells which would indicate that you need to do further investigation. If you see places where nine feet or more of water is coming up a river, it is clear that living on that river would require some care in choosing a home.
The fourth and most important thing is to talk to some local people who have had extensive experience in riding out storms. I have a friend who has been in our area for over sixty years, and he has given me a wealth of information. Ask the locals what areas flood and what areas are safe. You should know that even among locals, some people are more paranoid about storms than other. We have one neighbor who put plywood over the windows of his brand new home in our well-sheltered subdivision. As far as I know none of the forty plus homes suffered any wind damage to their windows during Irene. I think the building code requires 150 MPH windows. My neighbor got the benefit of drilling holes in his new home, and having his windows covered for several days until he had time to take down the plywood.
When Irene came to visit, we did get a number of the local herons and egrets who came to our cove to hide from the storm. It was a good sign as far as I was concerned. While their feathers might have gotten a little ruffled, I am sure they were better off hiding up the river with us than in a wide open marsh near the shore.
That are some basic common sense guidelines that can help in deciding on the right location for a home. First if you live on the water and have a broad expansive view of the water, the wind and or storm surge can likely drive that water towards you, and unless you live on a hill it could end up around your home.
Second if you live up a river off of a huge sound, the laws of physics dictate that when you drive all that water from the sound up a much smaller river, there will be flooding.
Third the topography of the area where you live is critical. If you are seeing very inexpensive waterfront property, there is likely a reason. Our county, Carteret, goes downhill from west to east. While no part of the county is very far above water, the western part is in far better shape than the eastern part which looks like a giant marsh if you drive through it. A trip down east is very different than driving around our area on the western side of the county.
The topography rule is also important in the subdivision where you pick a home. There is one subdivision in our area that is shaped like a bowl. When you have extreme rainfall even not related to a storm, you can get flooding there as you can on Emerald Isle near Coast Guard Road where the roads commonly flood after a storm. Our subdivision is sloped towards the water. When we had the 20.25 inches of rain in eight hours, we got a little water on our dock, some homes in the subdivision shaped like a bowl ended up with water inside them. When the tide went out, the water dropped from my dock even though it continued to rain for four hours. The homes in the bowl shaped subdivision had water in and around them for days.
Another rule that works well is avoid homes with basements. They just don't work well here at the coast. You are far better off with a home on a block foundation which has flood vents in the foundation. Flood vents are standard in new construction in areas which flood. It is also a good idea to avoid a home at the foot of a large sloping field. Torrential rain can come at you in like a small ocean wave if the topography of your home is wrong.
Also if you are buying an older home, you need to realize that it might not meet all the latest hurricane proof building codes. It is not unusual to see an older home not far off the ground next to a new home that is three or four feet off the ground. Which one do you think is built to handle floods?
There are a lot of small local factors that have a tremendous influence on the safety of a home. If you understand hurricanes, you can make some intelligent guesses on wind direction. I actually bought the inexpensive online Hurricane Survival Guide.
While it is targeted at boaters, it helped me understand wind directions in a hurricane. Our home is well protected from the east and north. Our main vulnerability is from the southwest. When hurricane Irene came by, we only had to deal with winds from the east and north. While we are protected, that doesn't mean storms aren't impressive as you can see from this YouTube video that I did from our deck at the peak of Irene.
So how did things go in our first hurricane test on the coast since our move here in September 2006? Certainly our area got punished by Hurricane Irene, but we survived Irene's onslaught which started at 5 PM Friday and did not end until 7 PM Saturday. We actually had an ice crea cone on Emerald Isle the day after the storm.
Carteret County in general and western Carteret County specifically came through Irene in great shape. My Crystal Coast Life article gives detailed information on how the area fared. At our home, I estimate we saw 80 MPH winds and perhaps as much as 15 inches of rain. However, our power was only out for 14 hours so we cannot complain. Another general rule that seems to be emerging from Irene is that small local electric cooperative do better than large old line power companies.
One other thought is that if you have a lot of trees close around your home, they can damage your home during a storm or provide you with lots of yard work for days after a storm. We were happy to not have any trees around our home. My clean-up consisted of running the lawn mower with bagger over the yard to pick up the debris that a neighbor had blown into my yard.
We were well prepared for Irene, and preparations confirmed much of the advice of the experts.
Things are back to normal here along the coast, and I am happy that I did my homework well before we bought a home here.