Tornado watches cover coast as Irene nears
Tornado watches and warnings have been issued for several counties along the North Carolina coast, as Hurricane Irene barrels toward the Outer Banks, lashing the area with heavy rains, powerful winds and flooding.Posted — Updated
The storm's center was about 85 miles south of Cape Lookout around 2 a.m., moving NNE at 13 mph. It had weakened to a Category 1 storm as expected, with sustained winds up to 90 mph around 3 a.m.
"The center of circulation is bearing down on the North Carolina coast and should be very close to the coast (by) morning," WRAL Chief Meteorologist Greg Fishel said.
The National Weather Service has not confirmed a rotation in that area, but said they're not ruling it out. No one was injured.
Flash flood warnings were in effect for Wilson, Nash, Halifax and Edgecombe counties until 9:15 a.m.
Irene has a very large wind field, Fishel said, which will bring powerful wind gusts as far west as the Triangle and is likely to knock down trees and power lines from the Interstate 95 corridor to the coast.
The storm was originally forecast to be a Category 3, with sustained winds over 110 mph, but it had weakened significantly by Friday.
As of 11 p.m. Friday, the storm was a Category 2, with max sustained winds of 100 mph, about 221 miles SSE of Raleigh, moving north at 13 mph. Its outer bands battered Wrightsville Beach and Atlantic Beach, where conditions were expected to worsen overnight.
"The good news for us this evening is that the hurricane is expected to weaken by the time the center is over North Carolina's coast," said Gov. Bev Perdue in a news conference Friday evening. "But let me be very clear – this could still be a large and powerful storm."
Perdue said the storm’s track through North Carolina could last 12 to 14 hours. Evacuation orders had been issued in 18 counties as of 6 p.m. Friday, Perdue said.
The American Red Cross opened shelters in 16 counties for people seeking refuge from the storm.
The Triangle could get 1 to 2 inches of rain and wind gusts up to 50 mph Saturday. Heavy rain, wind and flooding are expected from Interstate 95 East toward the coast.
"The flooding potential will be quite strong, especially from I-95 (to the) east, where the heaviest rain is likely to occur," Fishel said.
At Wrightsville Beach, heavy rain and wind gusts up to 55 mph have caused widespread power outages, especially in the town's southern end. Emergency management is trying to keep cars off of Canal Drive in the northern part of Carolina Beach, where there has been severe flooding.
Rain began falling shortly before noon and people started boarding up businesses in the downtown area Friday.
"It floods really bad down here at the beach, so we're going to go ahead and clean out the freezers, close for business today, sandbag everything (and) get all of the food out of the restaurant," said restaurant employee Susan Croom. "(We) hope that it will be clear by Sunday."
About 260 people took advantage of two shelters Friday, and the area saw about 6,000 scattered power outages throughout the day. Snow's Cut bridge in Kure Beach was expected to be closed.
Ityra Robinson, of Durham, traveled to Wrightsville Beach Friday with her husband and 2-year-old daughter just to watch Irene come ashore.
"We came from Durham to see the waves," she said. "It's something... it's great."
Wrightsville Beach has a curfew in place from 10 p.m. Friday to 7 a.m. Saturday.
A lot of events have been canceled, including the third-annual Beach Soccer Classic this weekend. Players from 67 teams across the state were planning to attend.
"We were very disappointed. We were looking forward to the tournament," said Giuliana Marturano.
"For us, it's like a huge disappointment. We didn't want them to cancel but what else are you going to do?" said parent Cosimo Marturano.
"The most important thing was the safety for players and their families. Safety is the No. 1 concern, so we decided that was the right thing to do," he said.
The event has been rescheduled for November. The tournament attracts anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 visitors to the Wilmington area.
"It was an impact of $1.5 million for the weekend," Saviano said. "It is a big loss to the community, but I think we'll get it back in November."
At Atlantic Beach Friday, the sky was gray and rainy, the beach was practically empty, businesses were closed, hotels were beginning preparations and the surf was churning.
At Molly's Restaurant, workers were boarding windows and putting away outdoor patio furniture. But Atlantic Beach resident Sam O'Berry said he plans to stay in town during Irene.
"I want to see it, and all my life, I've left and come back, and there's been more or less minimal damage. And I just want to see what a Category 3 will do," he said.
Atlantic Beach and all of the Bogue Banks are under an evacuation order for both tourists and residents. With the evacuation comes an 8 p.m. curfew for those who decide to stay.
Lee Dawkins, who has lived at Atlantic Beach for almost 30 years, said that fire engines have been driving up and down the streets, blasting the evacuation message. She thinks it's a good idea.
"A lot of people haven't lived here very long," she said. "(But) those of us who have lived here long enough, so far we've been fine."
Dawkins and her family aren't leaving, and she says most of her neighbors plan to stay as well.
"(I) want to be here, if we do lose a window or something, to protect our things," she said. "It'll be hard getting back on the island if there's damage."
Lifelong resident Mike Doyle is leaving for the first time.
"I've stayed and hung the rest of (the hurricanes) out, but it's time. Everybody seems to be leaving, so I'm going," he said.
For Heidi Tucker and her 4-month-old son, who live just two feet above sea level across the Bogue Sound in Morehead City, the decision to evacuate was a no-brainer.
"I feel like it's better safe than sorry. If we stayed and it was really bad, what's the point to be able to say, 'Hey, I toughed it out'?" she said.
Tucker's husband, David, who owns a seafood business, is staying behind, worrying about what's in the freezer. He stands to lose $20,000 worth of fresh seafood if his business loses power. But he's monitoring the storm closely, and staying optimistic.
"(I) made it through Hazel, Floyd, Fran, Bonnie, all of them, so hopefully I'll make it through this one," he said.
Mandatory evacuations emptied Kill Devil Hills' homes and the beach Friday, but some who live there and own businesses say they are choosing to stay.
Tom Byers said he is keeping his store open because people in town depend on him, including rescue workers.
Byers said he is worried, but that he and others stay, not because they think they are bigger than the storm, but because they don't want to deal with the re-entry hassle.
If a storm hits, they want to check on their property right away. If they leave, it could be days or weeks before they can get back home, he said.
He said it's the price residents pay to live at Kill Devil Hills.
"For me and my wife, this is our life," he said.
Phil and Barbara Jones also plan to ride out Irene in Kill Devil Hills. They said they cannot leave their house full of dogs on the sound side of the island.
"We just can't leave them and risk not being able to get back to them," Barbara Jones said.
They said they have seen the channel next to their home drain and flood in past storms. Although they sense the danger in Irene, they said it's not enough for them to leave.
"Oh yeah, we take it real serious," Phil Jones said.
The mood was light at Mama Kwan's restaurant on U.S. Highway 158, where people were enjoying the calm before the storm Friday night.
"We're just sitting here waiting for it to hit and you just start getting all amped up," said owner Kevin Cherry. "There are people here who want to have something to eat for dinner, one last night out before they feel like they're going to have cabin fever."
The University of North Carolina at Wilmington canceled classes Friday and issued a voluntary evacuation order just three days after fall semester classes began. Many students, however, hunkered down on campus instead of leaving town.
"I've communicated with my parents. We've talked about whether I should stay or I should go," said student Hunter Wilson. "I am just going to keep them up-to-date all weekend to let them know that I am safe and all my friends are safe."
A spokesperson for the university said that the storm's path does not necessitate a mandatory evacuation, but that more than half of the school's 4,200 students were expected to leave town.
Freshman Amy Rose is going to her parent's house in Pine Hurst, and she's bringing three out-of-state students with her.
"People are like, 'Where do we go? I don't know these people very well, but I am still going to go with them because I don't want to be in the hurricane,'" she said.
President Barack Obama said "all indications point to this being a historic hurricane," and Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano urged coastal residents to take precautions.
"Given the amount of rain associated with this storm and the likelihood of flooding, I would encourage you not to focus too much on whether it’s a Category 2 or a 3. If you are in the storm’s path, you won’t be able to tell much difference," she said.
The hurricane warning area was expanded Friday and now covers the coast from North Carolina up to Sandy Hook, N.J., which is just south of New York City. A hurricane watch extended even farther north and included Long Island, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, Mass.
The National Weather Service issued a hurricane warning for the North Carolina coast, which extends from north of Surf City to the Virginia border.
Perdue issued a state of emergency for all counties east of Interstate 95 and federal officials have warned that Irene could cause erosion, flooding, power outages or worse, even if it stays offshore.
Progress Energy says it's tripling its crews by adding 600 line workers and more than 100 tree-cutters to help cover the expected power outages.
While most airlines at Raleigh Durham International Airport said Friday they weren't anticipating flight schedule interruptions on Saturday, American Airlines and American Eagle canceled all flights and will resume operations Sunday at 10 a.m.
It's been more than seven years since a major hurricane, considered a Category 3 with winds of at least 111 mph, hit the East Coast. Hurricane Jeanne came ashore on Florida's east coast in 2004.
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, Fran in 1996, Floyd in 1999 and Isabel in 2003.