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Extended periods of heavy rain, flooding could affect roads, rails for weeks after Hurricane Florence departs

Flooding can lead to more damage and disruption of transportation systems in the days and weeks that follow landfall of a hurricane, such as the situation in Texas last year after Hurricane Harvey came ashore, than the actually storm itself. Hurricane Florence is expected to stall and dump up to 32 inches of rain on parts of North Carolina and Virginia over several days. ( Photo: Shutterstock )

With all the talk of the impact from Hurricane Florence as she comes ashore, likely in the Wilmington, NC, area on Thursday, much of the impact will take place for days and even weeks after the storm is long gone. That impact will be result of the heavy rains that are accompanying the storm and expected flooding that will follow.

“We’ve been working with our customers and users since mid-last week because of our concerns with this system,” Jon Porter, vice president of business services and general manager of Enterprise Solutions for AccuWeather, tells FreightWaves. “We think this is potentially setting up to be a flood disaster in parts of North Carolina and interior Virginia.”

AccuWeather’s Enterprise Solutions team works with clients, such as railroads, shippers, and trucking companies, to help them prepare for and weather major storms. Porter says that while the devastation from the storm along the coast will be catastrophic, the impacts will be felt throughout the region.

“It’s not like this is one of those hurricanes where it comes in and 12 hours later everybody is cleaning up,” Porter explains, noting that the forecast has the storm stalling and dumping rain for days on the region – up to 32 inches is possible in some areas.

In some respects, the behavior of Florence will be similar to Hurricane Harvey last year in the Houston area, which also stalled and dumped 40 inches-plus of rain in some areas that resulted in massive region-wide flooding and significant infrastructure damage.

“Every storm is different,” Porter notes. “I’m not saying this is going to be the same type of impact [as Harvey], but there will be similarities … in terms of commerce being shut down for some period of time. People can’t use infrastructure if it’s, one, not there anymore, or two, if it’s covered up by multiple feet of water.”

And that will likely be the lasting effect, Porter says. After the region deals with the first blow of high winds, storm surge and heavy rains, lasting flooding concerns and infrastructure assessment will take over.

“The storm stalling or moving slowly over that same vicinity after it makes landfall, that’s going to cause the heavy rain to be repeated for many days,” he says. “Once water runs off and in some cases through the mountainous terrain of Virginia … and into the rivers, we’re going to be dealing with severe river flooding that is going to last for weeks.”

 The flood potential for Hurricane Florence through Sunday. ( Photo: AccuWeather )
The flood potential for Hurricane Florence through Sunday. ( Photo: AccuWeather )

Flooding can also severely impact conditions of highways – major interstate corridors including I-40, I-95, I-74, I-85, I-77 and I-81 all run through the likely affected region – and rail lines.

“We’re expecting that roads are going to be washed out, some completely, rail infrastructure is going to be washed out in some areas that is going to have to be rebuilt,” Porter says. “There is a risk for some locations to be cut off completely from the outside world for some period of time, perhaps days in some areas. When roads are washed out and flooded, that can happen.”

If roads and rails are impacted, that is going to impact commerce, not only in North and South Carolina and Virginia, but up and down the East Coast.

“That’s a real challenge because how do you get things in after a disaster? Well, you do it with transportation,” Porter says. “Trucks are not going to be wanting to operate in this area for a substantial period of time, certainly during landfall, but if there is [infrastructure damage] then after. I think it’s going to be a real challenge because it’s going to slow commerce down.”

Higher winds in the interior, far from the affected area, will also be a factor for truck drivers in the days that follow as the remnants of Florence work their way away from North Carolina.

Flooded railways must be inspected before trains can operate over them again, and that could take some time depending on the overall level of damage and how quickly inspectors can reach the affected rails.

“We’re concerned that rail infrastructure tracks may be washed out or completely destroyed by flooding,” Porter says. “We know from dealing with previous tropical systems that you can have scenarios where rail infrastructure can get flooded and as soon as it’s flooded it’s not able to be operated on until it’s inspected.”


Complete Hurricane Florence Coverage

Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and fleetowner.com. Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at bstraight@freightwaves.com.