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North and South Carolina coasts hit by plenty of storms but few major hurricanes

CNN logo CNN 9/10/2018 By Ralph Ellis and Brandon Miller, CNN
CHARLESTON, SC - OCTOBER 4: A woman walks through debris as she shops in downtown Charleston, S.C. on Oct. 4, 1989, following Hurricane Hugo. It was the most powerful hurricane to hit the area in half a century, with winds reaching 135 miles per hour. (Photo by Tom Herde/The Boston Globe via Getty Images) © Tom Herde/The Boston Globe via Getty Images CHARLESTON, SC - OCTOBER 4: A woman walks through debris as she shops in downtown Charleston, S.C. on Oct. 4, 1989, following Hurricane Hugo. It was the most powerful hurricane to hit the area in half a century, with winds reaching 135 miles per hour. (Photo by Tom Herde/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Over the past century some famous and devastating hurricanes have battered North and South Carolina. We're talking about Hugo in 1989 and Hazel in 1954 -- storms that caused so much devastation their names were retired.

But in meteorological terms, the really big ones don't hit the Carolinas that often.

Since 1879, only seven major hurricanes have made landfall on the stretch of coastline from Savannah, Georgia, to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller said. A major hurricane is a category 3 storm or greater, meaning it has winds of at least 111 mph.

Despite the rarity of a major hurricane, coastal residents appear to be taking the threat of Hurricane Florence seriously.

Lumberton, North Carolina, is about 80 miles inland, but people there still made a run on supplies at the local Lowe's, said store manager Mackie Singletary. He said the store ran out of generators after selling 204 of them since noon Sunday.

"We've got more on the way," he told CNN. The store is also ordering more water, plywood and sand.

People in coastal Wilmington, North Carolina, know they need to get ready after weathering other hurricanes that caused plenty of damage, said Wilmington Assistant Fire Chief Frank Blackley said. Matthew, two years ago, caused heavy flooding.

Blackley described his own preparations: "My wife and I worked yesterday at our house to get the garage cleaned so we can move in any loose furniture from our yard and porch. I tested our generator and as long as it works we can at least keep our refrigerator and freezer working."

If Hurricane Florence hits as a category 3 or stronger, as meteorologists are predicting, it would be the first hurricane of that magnitude to hit the region in more than two decades.

Wind speed is not the only factor

Of course, a hurricane can cause extensive damage without being a major storm.

"Hurricanes are ranked historically almost exclusively by their wind speed, but significant damage and fatalities occur from a variety of hazards, including heavy rainfall and inland flooding," said Miller, the meteorologist. "These types of hazards can occur even with much weaker storms such as tropical storms or minimal hurricanes."

In the fall of 2016, Hurricane Matthew was a category 1 and 2 when it hit North and South Carolina and flooded the coastal area, reported the National Hurricane Center.

The storm caused 34 deaths in the United States and almost 600 overall, the hurricane center said. Most of the devastation occurred in Haiti.

Seven major hurricanes

These are the major hurricanes to strike the Carolinas since 1851:

Hurricane Fran made landfall as a category 3 storm on September 5, 1996, near Cape Fear, North Carolina. Twenty-six people died, including 14 in North Carolina, the hurricane center said. The storm caused about $5 million in damages. Fran's name also was retired.

Hurricane Hugo first devastated the Caribbean before striking as a category 4 storm just north of Charleston, South Carolina, on September 22, 1989. Hugo was responsible for 21 deaths in the mainland United States, five more in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands and 24 more elsewhere in the Caribbean. Damages: $9 billion.

Hurricane Gracie was a category 4 storm that made landfall on September 29, 1959, near Beaufort, South Carolina, with winds of about 130 mph. Because the storm came ashore at low tide, the impact was lessened, the National Weather Service said. At least 22 people died.

Hurricane Hazel wrecked the Caribbean before making landfall on October 15, 1954, as a category 4 hurricane near the North Carolina-South Carolina border. Winds were around 130 mph at landfall. Hazel was responsible for 95 deaths and $281 million in damage in the United States, 100 deaths and $100 million in damage in Canada and an estimated 400 to 1,000 deaths in Haiti, the hurricane center said.

• An unnamed category 3 storm came ashore on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1899 with winds of 120 mph, CNN meteorologists said. About 3,000 people were killed by the storm, mostly in Puerto Rico.

Grocery store shelves were emptied in the Carolinas as Hurricane Florence approached. © Provided by CNN Grocery store shelves were emptied in the Carolinas as Hurricane Florence approached.

• An unnamed category 3 storm made landfall north of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1893, CNN meteorologists said. The death toll was 1,000-2,000, though records don't specify where the deaths occurred.

• An unnamed category 3 hurricane with winds of 115 mph made landfall in 1879 near Morehead City, North Carolina, CNN meteorologists said. A reported 46 people died.

CNN's Kaylee Hartung contributed to this report.

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