Earlier this summer, government disaster planners simulated a Category 4 hurricane strike alarmingly similar to Hurricane Florence unfolding on a dangerously vulnerable stretch of the East Coast of the US.
A fictional “Hurricane Cora” was modeled to charge up the Chesapeake Bay and strike Washington, D.C., created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Argonne National Laboratory.
Simulated Cone graphical forecast for Hurricane Cora, used for the 2018 National Level Exercise. (This is NOT an actual hurricane, but is used for testing our nation’s preparedness for hurricane impacts.)
Associated Press (AP) said the computer models showed “catastrophic damage” from the hurricane, which some experts warn that Hurricane Florence could produce a disaster comparable to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in the Carolinas and surrounding states.
The fictional hurricane knocked out the power grid for most gas stations in the Mid-Atlantic region, severely damaged a nuclear power plant, and blocked critical shipping channels in the Chesapeake Bay, according to a Department of Energy simulation manual.
“What they were trying to do was create a worst-case scenario, but it’s a very realistic scenario,” said Joshua Behr, a research professor at Virginia’s Old Dominion University who is involved in disaster modeling and simulations.
Realistic indeed, it just so happens that months after the government’s Cora simulation, Hurricane Florence, a Category 4 storm shows up in the same general area — roughly 200 miles south of the modeled area in Wilmington, N.C.
On Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said the storm was 575 miles southeast of Cape Fear, North Carolina. It had maximum sustained winds of 130 mph and could make landfall in the Carolinas by the end of the week.
AP also said the fictional storm made landfall in the densely populated Hampton Roads region, causing a massive 15-foot storm surge and more than 9 inches of rain to the coastal area within the first six hours of landfall. Models showed main routes — used for evacuations as well as for first responders — in and around the coastal regions of Virginia, were severely damaged and allowed a delayed response of search and rescue teams.
Cora slammed +100 mph sustained winds into three nuclear power stations. One was critically damaged. Models also showed thirty-three major power substations were at risk for storm surge and inland flooding.
Ed Vallee, a meteorologist at Vallee Wx Consulting, warned that “Florence will approach the Carolina coast Thursday night into Friday with winds in excess of 100 mph along with flooding rains. This system will approach the Brunswick Nuclear Plant as well as the Duke-Sutton Steam Plant.”
He tweeted several weather models Tuesday morning that forecasts rainfall amounts 15-40″ range in some regions along the coast.
One of those models is the ECMWF Total Precipitation, which shows the most torrential rain could be situated around the two nuclear power plants in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Aside from Florence, the fictional storm damaged critical roads, bridges, and debris blocked the Newport News Channel and other waterways.
Coast Guard Station Cape Charles lost power, and Coast Guard Station Chincoteague was severely damaged by high winds. Models also showed cataphoric damage at Reagan National Airport in Washington.
The make-believe hurricane knocked out hundreds of cell towers, and power was lost to 135 data centers in Virginia and another 60 in Maryland.
The scenario projected hurricane-force winds for a 50-mile radius from the storm’s center, damaging residential neighborhoods and critical infrastructure.
AP notes that the Cora hurricane simulation makes no mention of deaths and injuries but instead focuses on infrastructure.
Another remarkable similarity between the Cora simulation and Florence’s path: already saturated ground on that part of the Mid-Atlantic coast.
“What I fear is that saturation, combined with a storm that kind of stalls out,” said Behr, who has studied vulnerable populations in the paths of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast and in the Hampton Roads region.
If parts of the East Coast, Mid-Atlantic, and or the South East are deluged with water, it could be a Katrina 2.0, Behr said.
“I believe that those patterns are also going to manifest in Hampton Roads if and when a large storm hits,” he said. “The vulnerability of our populations are quite similar to New Orleans. Displacement, pain, suffering, property loss. All those things are going to play out in a fashion that has parallels to how Katrina played out.”
AP warns that Hampton Roads, a coastal region inhabited by 1.7 million people in cities such as Norfolk, Virginia, and Virginia Beach, could experince difficulties in evacuations.
“I’ve heard people say Virginia Beach is the world’s largest cul-de-sac in the sense that there are not a lot of ways to evacuate,” said Michelle Covi, an assistant professor of practice with Old Dominion University and Virginia Sea Grant, a science group that works with other universities in the region on coastal issues.
“You can’t go north because of the Chesapeake Bay,” she said. “You can’t really go south, and in this case you wouldn’t want to because the storm is that way. You generally want to go west, but again there are lots of water bodies.”