Last month’s near-record rainfall could continue to have impacts in the Cape Fear region, including increased risks of flooding and wind damage, experts say.
Wilmington received a total of 11.4 inches of rain in the month of June, about 1.5 inches short of the 1962 record, but still more than twice the monthly average. Dr. Roger Shew, a geology professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, said that although the immediate effects of the rainfall have been marginal, the potential exists for a major rainfall event to cause extensive flooding and damage.
“Now if there were a tropical storm event to occur … that would of course be problematic, as the water table is high and the ground is saturated,” Shew said via email. “Any more significant rains would runoff instead of infiltrate.”
This is what happened in September 1999, when Hurricane Floyd struck two weeks after Hurricane Dennis had left the Wilmington area waterlogged. Floyd made landfall as a massive Category 2 hurricane, dumping nearly 20 inches of rain on Wilmington and causing unprecedented flooding across eastern North Carolina. While the Cape Fear River was spared the worst of the rainfall upstream, the Northeast Cape Fear River hit flood levels expected only once every 500 years.
According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the first week of July continued to see minor flooding in the Northeast Cape Fear River near Burgaw, and barring significant additional rainfall, is projected to taper off to below flood levels by the middle of the month. However, that may depend on how much of an impact eastern N.C. receives from Tropical Storm Chantal. (See related story page 1.)
“In the case of [June’s] rainfall, we had a good plume of moisture coming up from the Caribbean and the Bahamas area,” said Steve Pfaff, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Wilmington office. “If that pattern sets up again, or if we get some of the moisture from Chantal next week, we could see some flooding.”
Additionally, Pfaff said, one of the biggest risks could come from moderately strong winds bringing down trees in the area. “The saturated soil around the roots is loose, and especially this time of year when they have leaves on them … they can easily topple down.”
Shew noted that this summer was off to a very different start from last year, which saw a relatively drier summer that fluctuated between moderate and extreme drought conditions. He added that the water table in the surficial aquifer, which responds more directly to short-term rainfall patterns than the deeper, confined aquifers, has risen visibly in the past month.
While this is good news for well owners dependent on the surface aquifer for their water, the unseasonable rainfall isn’t necessarily being welcomed by local farmers.
Morgan Milne, the owner and namesake of Red Beard Farms in Castle Hayne, said his business has been hurting as a result of the unseasonable drenching. While the lack of revenue from outdoor farmers’ markets is currently his main financial concern, he said the ground has been too sodden for the past three to four weeks to take care of crops that have already been planted.
“I’ve got probably 2,000 pounds of potatoes rotting in the ground,” he said. “I can’t run the tractor, with the soil being so wet.”
The North Carolina Agricultural Department’s Weather and Crops Report from the first week of July found that soggy fields were preventing farmers across the state from planting, harvesting and applying fertilizers and pesticides.
Milne said okra, beans and tomatoes are especially susceptible to the unusual weather, and in addition the high temperatures have combined with the water to trigger high levels of disease.
Misfortunes aside, Milne is keeping in good humor.
“If this keeps up, I’m going to have to give this up and start growing rice and watercress,” he said.