Tropical storm warning issued for whole N.C. coast

Despite sunny skies and then a cool, soft night breeze, voluntary evacuations began in coastal counties, and ships left port to ride out the storm. A state of emergency covers the whole state ahead of possible hits from Tropical Storm Hanna and Hurricane Ike.

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Ships to ride out Tropical Storm Hanna on open seas
RALEIGH, N.C. — Placid water and sunny skies, followed by a cool, soft night breeze along North Carolina's coast Thursday were deceptive.

Gov. Mike Easley declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard and water rescue teams, and he urged residents to prepare for possible hits from Tropical Storm Hanna and Hurricane Ike.

"It now appears Hanna will be a Category 1 hurricane when it hits the North Carolina coast Saturday morning," Easley said. "Since the exact path is uncertain, everyone who lives in the coastal counties needs to be ready."

As of 2 a.m. Friday, the storm's center was about 490 miles south of Wilmington, moving north at more than 18 mph, with sustained winds of nearly 65 mph. Hurricane strength is 74 mph.

The evolving nature of Hanna's predicted track plagued the vacation plans of one Fuquay-Varina family.

"When we looked at the track for Hanna, we saw that Hanna looked like it was going to go through the mountains, so we made reservations here," said Jay Millard, who ended up in Atlantic Beach, with his wife, Candice, and two children.

"And now it looks like the storm's coming here," Millard continued.

A tropical storm warning is in effect for the entire North Carolina coast, from Southport to the Virginia border, until late Saturday. The warning means that tropical-storm conditions are expected within the next 24 hours.

A hurricane watch – indicating that hurricane conditions are possible within 36 hours – covers much of the Carolina coastline. The watch extends from Edisto Beach, S.C., up to Currituck Beach Light and includes Pamlico Sound.

"People are concerned. People should be concerned. Mother Nature is something we don't play around with," Kure Beach Mayor Mac Montgomery said.

Easley said the twin threats of Hanna and Ike prompted him to issue the state of emergency.

"It lets me legally activate all the resources the state has, (and) it's the first step to asking the federal government for assistance," Easley said.

The governor placed 270 National Guard members, 12 of the state's Swift Water Rescue teams and 144 state troopers on standby for immediate deployment.

"We also, for this particular storm, have six Blackhawk helicopters available both before and after the winds subside," Maj. Gen. William E. Ingram Jr., adjutant general of the North Carolina National Guard, said.

An emergency, bilingual hotline (1-888-835-9966 or TTY 1-877-877-1765) will begin 24-hour operations at 10 a.m. Friday. The hotline will provide weather updates, shelter locations, highway closings and, later, act as a referral service for those in need of help.

Forecasters could soon be getting less information about approaching storms, because some weather stations buoys have been removed or repositioned due to a lack of federal funding. Two buoys off Sunset Beach have been removed.

"It's the first information we get as the storm approaches," WRAL meteorologist Mike Maze said. "It's certainly disconcerting."

What Hanna will bring

North Carolina could begin feeling the effects of Hanna by Friday, including beach erosion, heavy rain and strong wind gusts. Counties east of Interstate 95 could see winds up to 80 mph.

"There are some hints tonight on satellite images that this system may be beginning to try to get better organized," WRAL Chief Meteorologist Greg Fishel said. "(Hanna) may be getting its act together and may be strengthening."

However, around 1 a.m., findings from a reconnaissance airplane flying through the tropical storm did not reflect the signs of strengthening picked up by satellites.

"Intensification may occur later tonight or tomorrow," Fishel said. 

The storm's center was predicted to come ashore around Wilmington after midnight Friday. By early afternoon, Hanna could be in southeastern Virginia.

Coastal county emergency officials said they think Hanna's most destructive force will be a storm surge of 2 to 4 feet. Tropical storm- and possibly hurricane-force winds are likely to coincide with high tide at 1 a.m. Saturday.

Tropical storm-force winds are predicted to approach the coast Friday evening and be widespread – up into the Triangle and Fayetteville – by 11 p.m. Hurricane-force winds could brush the coast soon after.

"It'll be getting nasty in Wilmington around then," Fishel said.

Eastern parts of the state could see 3 to 5 inches – enough to cause flooding in low-lying areas.

"Five inches is enough to cause problems. It may not overflow the (Outer) Banks, but it will certainly flood bridges, streams and roads," Easley said.

"In every one of these storms where there is flooding, all the injuries and fatalities occur after the storm," the governor added. "One foot of water can ... take a car completely off the road. Just a few inches can take you off your feet."

Hanna wasn't the only tropical weather system to watch. Farther out to sea, Hurricane Ike reached Category 4 strength, with winds up to 135 mph, as it spun westward across the Atlantic. It could arrive in the Bahamas on Sunday.

"We're all looking at Ike. That's the one we're really worried about," said Rex Edwards, director of the port at Morehead City. "Hopefully, Hanna will be nothing more than a little rainstorm."

Tropical Storm Josephine was out there, too, spinning around with winds around 45 mph.

Emergency plans laid across state

Localities around the state have begun making emergency plans and considering ordering evacuations and opening shelters.

“It’s best to be prepared. I’d rather err on the side of caution,” Wrightsville Mayor Stephen Whalen said.

"Hurricanes are hurricanes. Even tropical storms are destructive events, depending on how long they stick around," Carteret County Manager John Langdon said.

Ship crews worked feverishly to unload cargoes before Morehead closes its port at noon Friday. Sailors worked to drop off 25,000 tons of scrap steel from a Brazilian ship, and then get out to sea to weather at the storm.

"He'll get out away from the hurricane-force winds, and he'll ride it out better out there than he will up against our dock," Edwards said.

New Hanover County officials asked residents to voluntarily evacuate from beaches, low-lying areas and mobile homes from 6 a.m. Friday. Cape Lookout National Seashore superintendent Russell Wilson ordered visitors to leave uninhabited islands at the park north of Wilmington by 5 p.m.

Brunswick, Carteret and Onslow county officials said they would decide whether to call for evacuations after a conference call with state authorities Friday morning.

Officials said they did not want to alarm people, but to ensure that everyone was ready for the storm.

“I hope we don’t scare everyone to death by doing this,” said Bobby Greer, chairman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

Three counties planned to open shelters on Friday:

  • Brunswick County: North Brunswick High School, 1395 Scorpion Drive, Leland; West Brunswick High School, 550 Whiteville Road, Shallotte; opening at 9 a.m.
  • New Hanover County: Eaton Elementary School, 6701 Gordon Road, Wilmington; Dorothy B. Johnson Elementary School, 1100 McRae St., Wilmington; and Noble Middle School, 6520 Market St. Wilmington (pets accepted); opening at noon.
  • Pender County: Malpass Corner Elementary School, 4992 Malpass Corner Road, Burgaw; Topsail Middle School, 17385 U.S. Highway 17, Hampstead; opening at 4 p.m.

“I want people to know they can count on us,” Langdon said. “People with special medical needs, those who are new to the area and those who are scared need a place to go.”

Further inland, 80 F-15 E Strike Eagles and three large refueling planes took off from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. They will stay at Wright-Patterson Air Force in Ohio during the storm.

Some school systems and the University of North Carolina-Wilmington have announced plans to cancel or delay classes on Friday. Carteret will close schools early if shelters open or conditions change, Langdon said.

UNCW residence halls will remain open, with voluntary evacuation for students beginning at 8 a.m. Friday, school officials said. Employees should report to work as usual Friday and refer to the adverse weather policy.

Students Stephanie Mayer and Laura Paige said they did not plan to leave but went to Wal-Mart and stocked up on supplies.

"We all plan to like go to the same house with a bunch of our friends," Paige said. Mayer added, "Yeah, we're all like staying together, so we don't get stuck like alone."

Cape Fear Hospital and New Hanover Regional Medical Center have canceled all outpatient services scheduled after noon Friday. Outpatient clinics, Medical Mall and Coastal Family Medicine will close at that time. Normal hospital operations will resume Monday.

Pine Knolls Shores Mayor Joan Lamson said previous experience has taught her town to take hurricanes seriously. In 2005, Hurricane Ophelia left tiny Salter Path under water.

"When Ophelia came through, the oceanside was OK, but we had lots of damage on the soundside," Lamson said.

Tracking Hanna

Green dots on the map (below) represent counties that have announced emergency plans for Hanna. Blue dots show where WRAL news crews are throughout the state. The sun and clouds symbols show the locations of weather-data monitoring stations. Click those for updated local temperature, rainfall and wind statistics.


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