Published in News on September 14, 2005 1:52 PM
NAGS HEAD — Officials urged evacuation as a strengthened Ophelia edged toward North Carolina early Wednesday, while many people in the storm’s path shrugged at the threat of flooding rains and sustained high winds.
Many residents and visitors to the exposed Outer Banks chain of barrier islands expressed doubt that Ophelia, which was upgraded from a tropical storm to a Category One hurricane on Tuesday, would pack the same punch as Katrina, the Category Four storm that devastated the Gulf Coast just over two weeks ago.
“If it was that bad, we would leave,” said Charlene Heroux, 46, a 30-year resident of Manteo.
At 5 a.m. EDT, Ophelia was centered about 70 miles south of Wilmington and about 125 miles east-northeast of Charleston, S.C., and was moving north at 5 mph. Maximum sustained winds were near 75 mph and hurricane-force winds extended about 50 miles from the center.
Forecasts showed the storm running northeast along the North Carolina coast with its center staying offshore, then veering through Pamlico Sound, crossing the Outer Banks and heading back out to sea by late Thursday. With heavy rain expected to linger over land, the National Hurricane Center said up to 15 inches of rain was possible in parts of eastern North Carolina.
The slow-moving storm’s effects were already being felt in heavy rains up and down the coast near the border of the two Carolinas Tuesday.
At 3:30 a.m., the bridge over Snows Cut in New Hanover County was closed because of wind gusts into the mid-40s. Snows Cut is part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway that connects to the Cape Fear River near Carolina Beach.
“For a hurricane, it’s a pretty mild situation,” New Hanover County spokesman David Paynter said.
Tides were running a couple of feet above normal before dawn and the highest wind gust was 50 miles per hour at Carolina Beach, said forecaster Rick Kreitner of the weather service bureau in Wilmington.
A hurricane warning extended along a 275-mile swath from the South Santee River in South Carolina north to Oregon Inlet at Pamlico Sound in North Carolina.
A hurricane watch and tropical storm warning were in effect from the Oregon Inlet north to the North Carolina-Virginia line and southward from the South Santee River to Edisto Beach in South Carolina.
State and local officials, worried by the possibility of floods and determined not to be caught off-guard after Katrina, blanketed the coast with a mix of voluntary and mandatory evacuations, closing schools and opening shelters. Nearly 100 people had checked into a shelter in an elementary school near downtown Wilmington on Tuesday night.
North Carolina utilities recalled workers they had sent to the Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina and Gov. Mike Easley said coastal residents should be prepared to go without power for two to three days and endure flooding in rivers and sounds.
Bruce McIlvaine of Logan Township, N.J., was among those who cleared out Tuesday, packing to leave the Outer Banks’ Hatteras Island before his vacation ended.
“I don’t really want to mess with it,” he said. “You’re on a spit of land a dozen miles into the ocean.”
Others stayed put. As the sun set through slate-gray clouds Tuesday, Diane and Carl Komorowski of Philadelphia walked through the choppy surf in the Outer Banks town of Nags Head, determined to get the most out of their first vacation without the kids in 32 years.
“We’re just having a grand time,” said Diane Komorowski, grinning at her husband.
Unlike Hurricane Katrina, which made a head-on charge at the Gulf Coast, Ophelia has meandered since forming off the Florida coast a week ago, making landfall predictions difficult — and making it harder for some to take the storm seriously.
Nancy McKenzie, 57, of Charles Town, W.Va., said her family would use common sense and “when it gets bad enough, we’ll leave.”
On the Outer Banks, all residents and visitors were ordered to evacuate Hatteras Island, while visitors were ordered off Ocracoke Island and the National Park Service closed the Cape Hatteras lighthouse and the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills.
Across Pamlico Sound and up the Neuse River, residents of the New Bern area stocked up on storm supplies. A Wal-Mart store had a crowd of workers restocking shelves at midnight.
Schools were closed in many coastal counties in both North and South Carolina, while classes were canceled at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and East Carolina University in Greenville.
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford had called for a voluntary evacuation of oceanfront and riverside areas in the northeastern part of his state. Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner declared a state of emergency. National Guard troops were on duty in parts of North Carolina and Virginia.
A surfer was missing along the South Carolina coast, with the search suspended because of rough seas.
Ophelia is the 15th named storm and seventh hurricane in this year’s busy Atlantic hurricane season, which began June 1 and ends Nov. 30.
Associated Press Writers Paul Nowell in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., Jeffrey Collins in Avon, N.C., Margaret Lillard in New Bern, N.C., and Tom Foreman Jr., Martha Waggoner and Estes Thompson in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.
On the Net:
National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov
Other Local News
- Care in the sky: Members of the aeromedical evacuation crew fight to get injured troops back to their families