Hurricane Florence could knock out power for more than 2 million customers across the Southeast, according to a researcher who studies the impacts of natural disasters on infrastructure.
Flooding and destruction from wind, rain and a potentially record-setting storm surge will likely hamper efforts to restore power and communications networks for two or three days from when the initial impacts are felt, said Alexis Kwasinski, who is an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Swanson School of Engineering.
In many places, power outages could leave residents without power for two to three weeks, or even up to 5 weeks in some coastal areas, he said.
Kwasinski's forecast is roughly in line with one from Duke Energy that said 1 million to 3 million customers of the company's total 4 million in the Carolinas could lose power.
One of the biggest problems could be the massive storm surge currently forecast for the area. Florence is more or less moving directly toward the coast, so the storm is piling up water and pushing it toward shore. The coast of the region is pretty flat and low lying, both in the ocean and on land. Some forecasts have estimated a potential storm surge of 15 to 20 feet or more, which would be a record for the area. Flooding could also extend 10 to 15 miles inland from the coast.
A storm surge of that height more or less completely destroys everything in its path, Kwasinski said.
"It doesn't leave anything behind. It looks like a nuclear bomb went off," he said.
The flooding caused both by the surge and the heavy rains predicted inland will delay restoration efforts.
"The problem with flooding is that it takes time for that water to recede and thus that much more time to restore service," he said.
Electricity outages are not the only concern. Both wireless and landline communications tend to rely on local power sources, Kwasinski said. After a storm hits, utilities typically deploy generators to power communications towers and machinery. Those generators typically only have enough fuel to run for 24 hours. Even generators for large facilities usually have at maximum fuel for 72 hours. Getting to those generators to refuel could be difficult with such extensive damage and persistent standing water.
It is still early, so the storm's path and intensity could change, Kwasinski said. But what meteorologists are forecasting now does not look good.