Florence could be the most destructive storm to hit North Carolina's coast since record keeping began, said Robert S. Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, which is a joint venture between Duke University and Western Carolina University.

The storm surge could surpass the one wrought by Hurricane Hazel in 1954, which was 18 feet above median sea level when it hit Sunset Beach near the South Carolina border.

On the Outer Banks, new inlets could form while others are widened and deepened. The storm likely will blow water into the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds. As Florence churns back out, the wind could blow that water back over the Outer Banks.

"We will once again kiss Highway 12 goodbye," Orrin H. Pilkey, a professor emeritus of geology at Duke University, said of the Outer Banks' main highway.

Much of the mainland in eastern North Carolina is also likely to flood from heavy rains because the terrain is so flat and the water table is so high.

But the damage likely won't be as catastrophic as Hurricane Sandy was when it hit New Jersey or other storms that have struck far more developed areas in places like Florida.

"It's not a worst-case scenario for property damage," said Young. "Many of these communities have tried to limit development. But there's still a lot of property value there. The damage still might be catastrophic on a North Carolina scale."

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