Stab Magazine | How To Survive (And Maybe Surf) A Direct Hit Hurricane With Brett Barley
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How To Survive (And Maybe Surf) A Direct Hit Hurricane With Brett Barley

Category 4 Florence is headed for N.C. 

news // Sep 13, 2018
Words by stab
Reading Time: 5 minutes

America’s eastern seaboard is preparing for a direct from Hurricane Florence.

Current predictions have Florence maintaining its Major Hurricane status through landfall, which indicates a minimum of 130 mph winds around the storm’s eye wall. Most forecasts have the system making landfall in Wilmington, North Carolina on Wednesday with the eye impacting the coast on Thursday.

All of which is to say, the east coast could be in big trouble.

But they’ve also been through this before. Every seasoned resident from Florida to Maine has had their fair share of scares, near misses, and direct from the Atlantic hurricane season. Some places, like North Carolina’s Outer Banks, seem to get hit disproportionately often by these equator-born storms, which means they’ve had the most practice in preparing for impact.

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What a precarious line of sand on which to reside… Photo: Google Earth

For those who don’t know, the Outer Banks is a chain of sand-born barrier islands, separated from North Carolina’s mainland by the immense Pamlico Sound. At some points the island is less than 100 meters wide, meaning that when a big swell and high tide mix, whole portions of the island can literally go underwater. In the past this has led to months-long road closures and the creation of “new” inlets, one of which was formed in the past decade and required the construction of a bridge to pass.

That’s why Stab reached out to Brett Barley, the 28-year-old pro surfer from Buxton, North Carolina, about this Hurricane Florence.

Talking with Brett was both a masterclass in preparative strategy and a historical analysis of the last two decades of named storms in his region. It’s incredible how Brett can recite, with precise detail, the names and characteristics of every major storm to hit the island since the early 2000s.

That probably stems from the fact that when these storms arrive, Brett isn’t just trying to survive them – he’s trying to milk them for surf wherever possible.

Stab: Brett, how’s everything going over there? You guys ready for this?
Brett: Well I actually spent most of my day [Monday] surfing, as we’ve had the flattest summer ever and I felt like I needed to collect some footage – you know, for my job. The waves were fun but a little disorganized from the combo swell in the water, but it was just good to know that I still remember how to surf. After that I headed straight home and started helping my wife to prepare for the storm.

How are you feeling about the current models?
Eh, I’m not feeling very good [laughs]. Even with the current models having the storm heading south of us, I just know how these things work. They always say, “It’s gonna go here, it’s gonna there,” but they always end up coming right to us. Last year we dodged two or three bullets, but pretty much every other time we get hit. So until that thing is like 200 miles out and headed for South Carolina or offshore, I’m banking on some serious weather coming this way.

What are some of the worst hurricanes you’ve experienced in OBX?
Well when I was younger my mom always left with me to get off the island, but the one I remember the most was Isabelle when I was 13, and it knocked the inlet between Frisco and Hatteras. The actual storm wasn’t even that bad, the thing was that it had been Cat-5 swell for the week leading up to the impact, so while winds were minor the surge was just psycho. There have been a few others that were gnarly with how they affected the road, like Irene, but in terms of really bad winds the only one I can remember is Earl back in 2010. My wife and I were living in a little brick house and we boarded the whole thing up, and I remember the night before I was just thinking, “Oh my gosh, what is gonna happen if this thing is still a Cat-4 when it hits us? We ended up getting lucky as it downgraded to a 2 and did a last second curve off the coast, which I think was because the water was cooler by the coast. Right now we have some of the hottest water I can remember, which is not good.

Does wind or flooding scare you more with this storm?
I don’t typically worry about flooding, because I live on a high part of the island and have a structurally solid, lifted house. The worst flooding the Outer Banks has ever had, which I think was back in ‘93, wouldn’t have been high enough to get in our house. So I’m pretty confident here water-wise, but wind-wise, if it’s a Cat-4, that’s pretty brutal. That’s over 130 miles per hour. It’s important to remember though, the winds that define a hurricane’s intensity are limited to the eye wall, so as soon as the eye is 20 or 30 miles away the winds die down significantly.

So what are you doing to prepare?
Well, there are a lot of steps. We fill up our cars with gas, fill up a few gas cans so we can fuel the generator and grill in case the power goes out, buy plenty of water and supplies, trim the trees, clean up the back yard, move my jetski so it doesn’t float off the trailer, board up the windows, seal all our important documents. I’ve got a list somewhere…

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The list! @brettbarley

And I know it’s a little unsavory to ask, but do you get a teensy bit excited for these storms to hit, just for the off-chance of a good window of waves?
It depends. If it looks like it might skirt the coast, definitely, but with a direct hit [like Florence] I’m more focused on making sure myself and my family are safe. Plus, to be completely honest, the waves are usually super average after a direct hit. Because all the energy is in the front of the storm, once it passes over us there’s typically nothing left. You could have a Major Hurricane hit you and it would be head high an hour later. That’s what happened with Irene.

What do you do after the storm has subsided?
Typically you try to call around and see what happened across the islands, but if cell reception is out, you just get in the car and start checking everything out. Once you know all your friends and family are safe, you kinda just assess the damage and relax. Nobody really starts putting stuff back together until the next day [laughs]. And if the waves do happen to be good, then you surf.

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