Track of Hurricane Floyd.

Environmental Impact

Satellite image of Floyd's outer bands stretching from Florida to Maine.


Floyd was massive, even for a hurricane. At 580 miles across, it was twice as large as the destructive Hurricane Andrew that hit in 1992. Floyd's hurricane-strength winds could be felt 125 miles away from its eye. When these winds made landfall near Cape Fear, they were blowing at 105 miles per hour and gusting up to 130 miles per hour.

In the Newport area, Floyd's winds spawned ten tornadoes. One in Hobucken destroyed a mobile home, a house, three churches, and a school. Another four tornadoes were seen in Wilmington, and more were seen in Bertie and Perquimans Counties.

On Topsail Island, earlier hurricanes had already washed away the manmade dunes, leaving homes along the beach unprotected. These homes were wiped out as Floyd's winds and storm surge cut three new inlets into the island. The homes that did survive were now nearly in the surf and vulnerable to future storms.

But the most disastrous of Floyd's impact was inland flooding. Before Floyd made landfall, Hurricane Dennis passed over North Carolina twice, dumping 5–10 inches of rain. When Floyd arrived the following week, rivers and streams were already full and some areas were already flooded. But Floyd had plenty of rain of its own. It combined with a low pressure weather system which squeezed extra moisture from the atmosphere, just like Hurricane Hazel did in 1954. The resulting rain lasted for 60 hours in some areas.

Record Flooding
feet above flood stage
Tar River (Tarboro) 22.5
Tar River (Rocky Mount) 17.4
Tar River (Greenville) 16.7
Neuse River (Goldsboro) 14.9
Neuse River (Kinston) 13.7

Source: NWS/USGS, cited in North Carolina's Hurricane History by Jay Barnes.

Before and after satellite images show the severity of the flooding in NC. In the "after" image on the right, the brown pollution of the water can also be seen.

NWS Raleigh.

After Floyd left, every river and stream in eastern North Carolina was flooded. And the waters continued to rise, some as fast a 6–8 inches per hour. Nine new flood records were set. Even areas that did not usually flood were swamped with water from smaller streams and creeks. It took weeks for the waters to return to normal levels. The Neuse River in Kinston was still above flood stage on October 17 when Hurricane Irene hit, a month after Floyd.

Floyd was declared a 500-year flood, meaning there is only a 0.2% chance of this level of flooding in a given year. However, after reviewing and updating old maps, officials at the USGS revised Floyd's rating to a 150- or 200-year flood.

The flood submerged sewer treatment plants and farms, as well as cars and homes. This contaminated the water with human and animal waste, fertilizers, pesticides, and gasoline. The flood waters were so dirty that emergency workers smeared Vick's Vapo-Rub under their noses to fight the stench, and helicopter pilots reported that the flood waters had an oily rainbow sheen.

All this pollution was flowing downstream into North Carolina's rivers and estuaries, and many people worried that much of the fish population would be killed, just as it had been in earlier hurricanes. Emergency money was given to the fishing industry to cope with the expected loss. But the fish actually survived, and the fishing industry had a successful catch that year. Scientists are unsure why the fish survived Floyd's polluted flood waters. One reason may be that the earlier freshwater runoff from Hurricane Dennis had already pushed the saltwater fish closer to the ocean and farther away from Floyd's pollution. Another reason maybe that the cooler September water held more oxygen which allowed the fish to survive despite the contaminated water. David Herring of the NASA Earth Observatory explains Floyd's effects on the river ecosystem in more detail at this website.

All dollar amounts have been adjusted for inflation as of 2009.