Weather

Irene eyes NC coast, evacuations begin

Posted August 24, 2011 6:19 a.m. EDT
Updated August 24, 2011 10:54 p.m. EDT

— Evacuations began on Ocracoke Island Wednesday as Hurricane Irene strengthened to a Category 3 storm over the Bahamas, with the East Coast in its sights.

Irene had maximum sustained winds of 120 mph and was moving northwest at 12 mph Wednesday evening. Forecasts called for the storm to strengthen on Thursday and Friday as it shifts to the north.

Winds in the upper atmosphere will steer Irene to the north along the East Coast in the coming days and prevent it from causing much damage to inland North Carolina, WRAL Chief Meteorologist Greg Fishel said.

"All of the numerical models are very much in agreement now on the path this storm is going to take," Fishel said, noting that it could cause problems as far north as Long Island and New England early next week.

Irene's track keeps the center of the storm barely off shore on Saturday, but hurricane-force winds are expected to extend up to 50 miles from the center and tropical storm-force winds up to 205 miles.

"This is going to be a strong, powerful storm. It is going to do damage," WRAL meteorologist Elizabeth Gardner said. "Even if you're not in the Outer Banks, all along the coast, we're going to have problems."

The evacuation in North Carolina tests whether people in the cross-hairs of the first major hurricane along the East Coast in years will heed orders to get out of the way.

"It's sad," said Eric Partee, who was vacationing on Ocracoke Island from Virginia. "I got down here Monday, and my family got down here Saturday. Here I am leaving on Wednesday."

The first ferry to leave the 16-mile-long barrier island arrived just before 5:30 a.m. in Hatteras with about a dozen cars on board. Tourists were told to leave Wednesday and residents Thursday.

Dare County officials ordered tourists to leave the area starting Thursday at 8 a.m. Officials will meet again Thursday to determine if residents need to evacuate.

Currituck County officials were meeting Wednesday evening to determine whether to call for an evacuation as well. Southern coastal counties, like New Hanover County, were expected to advise people to leave low-lying areas prone to flooding.

Gov. Beverly Perdue urged eastern North Carolina residents to fill their gas tanks, take some extra cash out of the bank and be prepared in case power is disrupted to the area for several days.

"We need to prepare for the worst,” she said. "It could be a very serious storm."

Federal officials have warned Irene could cause erosion, flooding, power outages or worse all along the coast even if it stays offshore. The projected path has gradually shifted to the east, and the shifting forecasts left Perdue sounding sunny about coastal tourism.

"By late Sunday or Monday morning, North Carolina, with any good luck, will be open for tourism again," she said.

The governor defended her suggestion on Tuesday that tourists hold off on canceling vacation plans on the Outer Banks as Irene approaches.

"We have learned over the years that sometimes there are predictor models that change, and if we do react strongly early on – several days before the storm hits North Carolina – we do some significant damage to the coastal economy,” she said. “It’s a really fine line that you have to walk.”

Newlywed Jennifer Baharek, 23, of Torrington, Conn., lined up for an early ferry to get off Ocracoke. She and her husband, Andrew, were married Monday and planned to spend their honeymoon on the island.

"We just got to spend one day on the beach, and then we went to bed early to get up for the evacuation," she said.

The Portoghese family of St. Paul, Minn., had hoped to camp out at Hatteras for the week.

"We're having fun today, so that's good. Wish we could stay a little longer," Carolyn Portoghese said.

Partee said he never had the chance to put his kayaks in the water. "Hopefully, I won't need them on the way home," he said with a laugh.

Meanwhile, surfer Paul Axelsson and his friends drove down to Hatteras Island from New Jersey to try to catch some waves churned up by Irene.

"We live for this – surfing (and) having a good time," Axelsson said.

The surf, pristine beaches and wild mustangs attract thousands of tourists each year to the 200-mile stretch of fragile barrier islands off North Carolina's coast. Aside from Ocracoke, the other islands are accessible by bridges to the mainland, but the limited access can make the evacuation particularly tense.

All the barrier islands have the geographic weakness of jutting out into the Atlantic like a car's side mirror, a location that's frequently been in the path of destructive storms over the decades.

Many remember 1999's Hurricane Floyd, which made landfall as a Category 2 and caused a storm surge that wiped out scores of houses and other properties on the Outer Banks.

Irene has already wrought destruction across the Caribbean, giving a glimpse of what the storm might bring to the East Coast. In Puerto Rico, tens of thousands were without power, and one woman died after trying to cross a swollen river in her car. At least hundreds were displaced by flooding in the Dominican Republic, forced to take refuge in schools and churches.

It's been more than seven years since a major hurricane, considered a Category 3 with winds of at least 111 mph (179 kph), hit the East Coast. Hurricane Jeanne came ashore on Florida's east coast in 2004.

On North Carolina's mainland, residents who have weathered years of storms took notice. People flocked to gas stations and stores Tuesday to stock up on supplies like gasoline for generators, plywood for boarding up windows, flashlights, batteries and drinking water.

"(Hurricanes) are just unpredictable. You just never know," Wrightsville Beach resident Marcus Thompson said. "You have to prepare. I think people nowadays are more prepared than they've ever been."

Although Irene is expected to miss southern North Carolina, scores of boat owners pulled their boats out of the water in Wrightsville Beach to put them in dry storage for protection.

"(It's) just a precaution. It will probably get busy around here, and everybody will be pulling their boats out. So, we decided to go ahead and take the opportunity at this time to pull it," boat owner Steve Wheeless said.

Atlantic Marine got 100 calls from nervous boat owners Tuesday, owner David Floyd said. His storage building can withstand winds up to 125 mph.

"We have capacity for 60 to 70 boats, and we're in the mid-80s at this point," Floyd said. "It's hard to say no, but at some point, we have to cut it off."

Staff Sgt. Heather Stanton at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base outside Goldsboro said forecasts for high winds prompted officials to plan to move the installation's F-15 fighter jets and KC-135 tankers to another site.

At Camp Lejeune, Marine Corps spokesman Nat Fahy says a ceremony opening a new battle training center was being delayed because of Irene. Fahy says it is unclear when the ceremony will be held.

The last hurricane to hit the U.S. was Ike in 2008. The last Category 3 or higher to hit the Carolinas was Bonnie in 1998, but caused less damage than other memorable hurricanes: Hugo in 1989, Floyd in 1999 and Isabel in 2003.