Duration: What Tech and Cyber Pros Can Learn from Hurricane Florence

As the country prepared for another massive hurricane to strike the U.S. last week, a different type of storm threat emerged as the greatest concern for the Carolinas. What can we learn?

by / September 16, 2018
Photo Credit: Tribune News Service/Chuck Liddy Dozens of downed trees block Market Street in the Historic District of Wilmington, N.C. as Hurricane Florence made landfall Friday Sept. 14, 2018.

As coverage of Hurricane Florence unfolded last week, one word kept coming up on Thursday and Friday as everyone prepared for the storm.

“Duration!” 

Beginning midweek, long before we knew where Florence would make landfall in the Carolinas, weather forecasters told us, “This storm appears different.” And, "We'll be seeing the impacts from Florence for days." 

They warned that Florence would likely slow down and meander along the coast. Forecasters said some areas in North and South Carolina will see heavy rain all weekend. Records flooding could result. Storm surge will be relentless, not because of records wind speeds, but due to unprecedented duration.

By Saturday morning, the situation was even more desperate, with descriptions becoming much stronger, and the situation along the Carolina coastal towns more dangerous. All of this before the cresting of rivers — still days away. 

ABC News: 'It's like a bomb has gone off here': Stranded residents hunker down as Florence hammers NC. Expect, "catastrophic flash flooding and prolonged significant river flooding."

USA Today: 'Uninvited brute': Florence leaves 7 dead; threatens Carolinas with 15 more inches of rain

NY Times: Hurricane Florence Live Updates: Catastrophic Flooding Feared as Storm Crawls Inland. “Florence continued its torrential roll through the Carolinas on Saturday, with winds blowing up to 50 miles an hour and officials fearing that the worst damage was yet to come. Forecasters are predicting record-setting rainfall as high as 40 inches, with an additional 10 to 15 inches still expected in some areas of North and South Carolina. …”

CBS News Miami: “Epic flooding through early next week.”

Weather.com: "Staggering numbers from Florence: 11 Deaths 18 Trillion Gallons of Rain"

Background on Online Threats During Hurricane Response

There were plenty of reminders of the cyberthreats that come with hurricanes.

Independent Tribune — WARNING: State says cyber attacks on the rise during Hurricane Florence. “State Chief Information Officer Eric Boyette and State Chief Risk Officer Maria Thompson are urging North Carolinians to be cautious of cybercrime before, during, and after Hurricane Florence. …”

NPR: Sharks In The Water? FEMA Tries To Fight 'Fake News' As Florence Hits — “FEMA is rolling out a new tool as it begins to deal with now-tropical storm Florence. It's a rumor-control webpage.

Unfounded rumors — what might be called "fake news" — have been a problem in coping with recent disasters, according to Gary Webb, a professor and chair of emergency management and disaster science at the University of North Texas.

Looking back a lessons learned from last year, 2017 was the year that hurricanes devastated land data and trust.

There were many Hurricane Harvey warnings and lessons learned regarding infrastructure that still apply in 2018. We also had quite a bit of discussion on Hurricane Maria leading up to Friday, with most of the conversation centering on how many people died.

The New ‘Duration’ Factor

So what is different about Florence? This storm is certainly not the largest or most powerful in history, when measured by wind speeds or several other hurricane metrics. Indeed, the category one status and fairly rapid drop to a tropical storm can (at first) seem to indicate a relatively ‘average’ hurricane struck the Carolinas.

But that would be a major mistake.

Indeed, the slowness of this storm is what is making it so deadly and dangerous. Expert after expert has reiterated the challenges posed by the relentless pounding and huge amounts of rain produced by Florence.

Will this be a part of the new normal?

This analysis was offered by The Verge: “Hurricanes stalling like Florence over the Carolinas may get even more common. We saw a similar leisurely pace with Hurricane Harvey, which dumped more than five feet of water on southeastern Texas, killing 68 people and causing so much damage that it was costlier than any hurricane except Katrina, the NHC says.

Lessons Coming for Incident Responders?

It is far too early to discuss a comprehensive list of lessons learned from Hurricane Florence. First responders are still saving lives, and there are days of ongoing challenges from ongoing weather conditions from this storm before flood waters eventually recede. Indeed, many say the worst is yet to come. 

Nevertheless, as readers look back on Florence, I have no doubt that we will remember Hurricane Florence for the slow, meandering duration of the storm. The length of the challenges posed by such an event should also be studied by emergency response teams who look at all hazards, including cyberincidents.

“Low and slow” cyberattacks has been a term used to describe DDOS or other online attack situations. Perhaps, there is a wider meaning now. We need to be thinking about this topic, because we can learn many lessons from Hurricane Florence — even in cyberspace.