Natural gas pipeline companies and electric utilities across the Carolinas, Virginia and West Virginia are preparing for “significant impacts” from winds and heavy rains stemming from Hurricane Florence, which is on track to approach the coast of North Carolina or South Carolina Thursday and Friday as a possible Category 5 storm, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC).
As of 3 p.m. ET Tuesday, the NHC said Florence, still a Category 4 storm, was about 370 miles south-southwest of Bermuda and 845 miles east-southeast of Cape Fear, NC with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph. Florence was moving to the west-northwest at 17 mph.
The hurricane was “getting better organized and increasing in size,” with a “life-threatening storm surge possible” along the North and South Carolina coasts, said the NHC.
“On the forecast track, the center of Florence will move over the southwestern Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda and the Bahamas through Wednesday, and approach the coast of North Carolina or South Carolina in the hurricane watch area Thursday and Friday,” said forecasters.
A hurricane watch was in effect Tuesday afternoon from Edisto Beach, SC, to the North Carolina-Virginia border and Albemarle and Pamlico sounds.
“Florence is expected to produce total rainfall accumulations of 15-20 inches with isolated maximum amounts to 30 inches near the storm's track over portions of the Carolinas and Mid-Atlantic states from late this week into early next week,” said the NHC. “This rainfall could produce catastrophic flash flooding and significant river flooding.”
Weather Underground co-founder Jeff Masters said Florence could stall and wander near or over the coast for up to four days, potentially becoming the “Harvey of the East Coast,” dumping prodigious amounts of rain. If a significant portion of the storm’s circulation remains over water, as Hurricane Harvey’s did last year when it stalled over Southeast Texas, or if Florence were to move into the higher terrain of western North Carolina and then stall, rain could break all-time state records from a hurricane or tropical storm.
Storm Seen as Destructive for Demand
The expected widespread power outages and flooding resulting from the storm undoubtedly will be destructive for natural gas demand. Genscape Inc. early Tuesday had not seen any storm-related impacts as the demand sample for North Carolina remained flat to levels from the past week at around 1.75 Bcf/d, with little notable change in population-weighted temperatures. South Carolina sample demand was sitting at 618 MMcf/d, just slightly below the last week’s average.
North Carolina sample demand remained steady compared to the last several days at just under 1.8 Bcf/d. Virginia demand sample was showing a bit of an uptick following the conclusion of the weekend that featured cooler-than-normal temperatures, Genscape said.
Utilities Hunkering Down
Charlotte, NC-based Duke Energy, which distributes natural gas to about 1.6 million customers in five states and has generating capacity of nearly 50,000 MW, is moving power restoration crews from its Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Florida utilities to stage them in the Carolinas and assist in restoring power when it is safe to do so.
In addition, line technicians and workers are checking equipment, supplies and inventories to ensure adequate materials are available to make repairs and restore power outages. Duke also is working with the Southeastern Electric Exchange to secure additional crews from other energy companies to assist.
"Hurricane Florence continues to strengthen and poses a significant threat to the Carolinas, possibly surpassing the damage seen from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 because of the potential for inland hurricane-force winds and a substantial amount of rainfall," said Duke Energy senior meteorologist Max Thompson.
Duke also continues to lower lake levels in anticipation of the forecast of potential significant rainfall from Florence by moving water along all river basins and operating its available hydro units. The designs of the company's dams and current water levels determine the best way to move water at any given time. “If we receive significant rainfall, lake levels will rise much more quickly due to runoff,” the company said.
Among Duke’s power generation fleet are five nuclear facilities in North and South Carolina that together generate about 8,850 MW.
The company said restoring power after a massive storm can be “extremely challenging for utility repair crews, as travel and work conditions can be impacted by high winds and widespread flooding, making repair work lengthy and difficult.”
Richmond, VA-based Dominion Energy management urged customers to “prepare now for a multi-day storm that could bring dangerous conditions and widespread outages.” While Florence’s exact track remains uncertain, “confidence is increasing that Florence could have a substantial impact on Virginia and North Carolina," said Dominion’s Ed Baine, senior vice president of electric distribution.
Elba Island, Pipelines On Alert
Meanwhile, Kinder Morgan Inc.’s Elba Island liquefied natural gas terminal, Southern Natural Gas (SNG) system and Elba Express pipeline continue to remain fully operational, although the company is monitoring the storm’s progress and making contingency plans, spokeswoman Melissa Ruiz said.
Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC (MVP) has halted construction in Virginia until the storm passes on its proposed 303-mile pipeline that spans from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. “With the state of emergency now in effect across Virginia, we have diverted all resources in the Commonwealth for environmental maintenance and hurricane preparedness, including the securing of materials and equipment for potential wind impacts,” MVP said.
In West Virginia, MVP is working to ensure that the right-of-way is stabilized, and erosion controls are maintained and enhanced in advance of the storm’s potential inland advancement. A previous weather system with significant rainfall has already saturated grounds along several portions of the MVP route and precautionary measures have been implemented to address potential issues, the company said.
MVP is also proactively enforcing additional storm preparedness activities in Virginia, which include moving fuel tanks, pipe and equipment from floodplain areas and removing equipment from nearby streams and waterbodies. Temporary construction bridges are being individually evaluated and will be secured or removed as necessary.
In addition, MVP is securing pipe in open trenches, and trenches where pipe has been laid will be backfilled to inhibit ponding, it said. It is also installing enhanced erosion and sediment controls at road crossings.
The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina (ECSC) is dispatching crews across the region to be near at-risk areas after a storm passes.
“We’ve spoken with co-op operations directors in Georgia and know they have crews ready to roll as soon we make the call,” said ECSC’s Todd Carter, vice president of loss control and training. South Carolina cooperatives also may use crews from Arkansas, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi if necessary.
States Of Emergency
President Trump declared a state of emergency in North and South Carolina, while Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency, and West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice issued a state of preparedness. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster ordered an evacuation for the entire coast, in addition to numerous school closures, while school districts in North Carolina were monitoring the storm to decide whether to cancel classes.
Florence’s hurricane-force winds on Tuesday extended outward up to 40 miles from the center and tropical storm-force winds extend outward up to 150 miles. The storm is expected to produce total rainfall accumulations of 15-20 inches with isolated maximum amounts to 30 inches over portions of the Carolinas and Mid-Atlantic states late this week into early next week. Rainfall could produce catastrophic flash flooding and significant river flooding, the NHC said.
North Carolina’s hurricane rainfall record is 24.06 inches from Hurricane Floyd in 1999, South Carolina’s is 18.51 inches from Tropical Storm Jerry in 1995 and Virginia’s is 27 inches from Hurricane Camille in 1969, according to Weather Underground. There is also the danger that Florence could make landfall, then emerge back over water and re-intensify, increasing its rainfall potential, Masters said.
“A soggy late summer has set the stage for major flood concerns. Much of the period since mid-July has been exceptionally wet over parts of the mid-Atlantic,” Masters said, noting several cities including Washington, DC, and Williamsport, PA, had their wettest summers on record.