Heavy rain and high surf lashed the Carolina coasts today as a revived Hurricane Bertha spun closer to land, with top winds increasing to 105 mph after passing over the Gulf Stream.
The storm, which grew to a Category 2 storm this morning, was expected to make landfall near Wilmington later today.
``We have it headed for Wilmington at the moment,'' hurricane center meteorologist Fiona Horsfall said. ``We're not going to pin it down because there will be jumps, here and there. But that is the general area it is expected to go.''
Hurricane-force gusts of 98 mph were recorded at an automated station on Frying Pan Shoals, about 20 miles south of Cape Fear, the National Hurricane Center reported at 11 a.m.
Gusts as high as 64 mph were registered near Wilmington and 58 mph in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where waves pushed up the steps of the boardwalk at high tide this morning, and whitecaps stretched to the horizon.
Forecasters also warned of a threat of tornadoes spinning off from Bertha as the storm wades across eastern sections of the Carolinas. The watch, in effect in 25 North Carolina counties, was in effect until 8 p.m.
The storm, which gained strength this morning after weakening Thursday, affected at least 300,000 residents and vacationers in the state told to flee inland to look for dry land.
Tom and Martha Curry of Wilmington tried to avoid the storm's fury at nearby Trask Middle School, one of at least 40 shelters open in the state.
``We've experienced hurricanes in Florida and New Orleans, and they weren't any fun, so when I hear one's coming, I start looking for a safer place,'' Martha Curry said. ``We live near here, but our home is a double-wide trailer, and everyone says it's best not to stay in one when a hurricane's coming.''
The eastern Carolinas braced for widespread flooding as Bertha made its slow march north, and hurricane-force winds arriving by early afternoon. But forecasters said it should lose any remaining punch over land.
``Once it gets over land, it'll probably just become a nor'easter,'' said Jerry Jarrell, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
At 11 a.m. EDT, Bertha's eye was about 105 miles south of Wilmington, now moving north near 13 mph, and hurricane-force winds extended out 115 miles from the center.
Winds had been locked in at 80 mph from Thursday afternoon until early today, but movement over the Gulf Stream gave Bertha ``a chance to rewire itself just before landfall,'' said hurricane meteorologist Steve Lyons.
No more strengthening is expected, forecasters said.
At least 10 coastal counties in North Carolina have ordered evacuations, affecting hundreds of thousands summer visitors and local residents.
American Red Cross acting president Gene Dyson said this morning in Wilmington that 50 shelters had been set up in the Carolinas - 40 of them in North Carolina - taking in 6,800 people and serving more than 21,000 meals.
At the evacuation's peak Thursday night, 82 shelters kept 14,500 people, he said.
``The response has been very orderly,'' Dyson said. ``People have done basically as they have been told, although there are a few who always want to experience a hurricane.''
While the exact path of the hurricane still was unclear, emergency officials prepared for the worst, telling seaside natives and guests alike to leave.
Gov. Jim Hunt declared an emergency in 34 coastal counties, giving the state power to enforce evacuation orders, to call out the National Guard and to remove local officials who refuse to cooperate with state emergency management efforts.
As winds and waves heightened, ferries halted runs to Ocracoke Island, which has been under an evacuation order since daybreak Wednesday.
Commanders at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, who earlier ordered the base's planes to safer skies in Louisiana and Wisconsin, decided to shut down operations and hunker down for the storm. Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station ordered only essential workers in today.
Motels as far as 200 miles away from the coast had no vacancies due to the coastal exodus, and innkeepers told frustrated travellers to look further west to Rocky Mount and Raleigh for shelter.
Vacationers from the coast started showing up in Triangle motels and hotels Thursday afternoon and filled some to capacity by nightfall.
About 50 families Thursday made reservations for today at the Marriott in Research Triangle Park, taking all available rooms.
``I'd say we've turned away about 30 rooms this morning. We were full by last night,'' said Craig Simmons, who works at the Holiday Inn in Kinston. ``A lot of people beat them to it.''
Ocean swells this morning reached 22 feet in the waters off Wilmington. Rainfall totals in the hurricane's path could reach 8 inches and a storm surge of up to 8 feet are expected today at the storm's height.
On Thursday, property owners like Bobby Ketchie in Brunswick County taped windows at the building where his bathroom fixture company operates.
``We're hoping Bertha's going to shift on up and turn (east), but I don't know what's going to happen,'' Ketchie said.
At Sunset Beach, a tiny island linked to the mainland by a one-lane pontoon bridge, police officers used bullhorns to order residents out by 4 p.m. Thursday. While the evacuation was not mandatory, there was hardly a soul on the beach by mid-afternoon.
Wrightsville Beach police officer Darby Guy stood guard this morning at the bridge that separates the barrier island from New Hanover County. Visitors had not been able to cross it since Thursday night following a mandatory evacuation.
``There are very few people left on the beach. It's mostly just town employees,'' Guy said. ``People need to take this storm very seriously.''
Copyright ©1996 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or distributed.
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