RODANTHE, N.C. (AP) – Cars, recreational vehicles and SUVs streamed inland from North Carolina’s Outer Banks yesterday as up to 90,000 people were urged to get out of the way of Hurricane Isabel, the most powerful storm in four years to menace the mid-Atlantic coast.
Isabel’s winds weakened during the day to about 105 mph from a peak of 160 mph over the weekend. But forecasters said the hurricane could strengthen when it crosses the warm waters of the Gulf Stream on a projected course that could take it straight into the Outer Banks early tomorrow.
Holly Barbour, vacationing from Wheeling, W. Va., said she and her family planned to head south to Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“Yesterday was so nice, we couldn’t believe that a storm was coming,” she said. “A lot of people were saying they were heading out when they told us to evacuate. So we’re going to do the same.”
Coastal residents from South Carolina to New Jersey boarded up homes and businesses and stocked up on batteries, water and other supplies. North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley declared a state of emergency, allowing him to use the National Guard and also seek federal disaster relief after the storm passes.
Easley urged residents to evacuate low-lying coastal areas.
“Now is the time to prepare,” he said. “The course and intensity of this storm may change very quickly.”
Thousands of tourists and others abandoned parts of North Carolina’s Outer Banks as rough surf pounded the thin, 120-mile-long chain of islands.
By yesterday evening, grocery stores and restaurants were closed or shuttered and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was barred to visitors. The main beach highway, N.C. 12, was unusually barren of traffic and the beaches nearly desolate.
“Even a lot of old salts are bailing out,” Brian Simmons said as he placed plywood across the window of Stoney’s Seafood in Avon. “I don’t know if it’s some vibe they feel or something.”
But some weather-tested residents treated the evacuation orders as just a suggestion.
“It’s easier to stay on the island,” Margie Brecker said as she and her husband boarded up their Christmas shop in Rodanthe and prepared to hunker down. “That way, we are right here when it’s time to clean up, and we’re able to help others.”
David Kidwell, a 64-year-old retiree, was staying put at his home in Kitty Hawk.
“If it was a 5, I’d be gone. If it was a 4, I’d be gone. But right now it’s looking like a 2 or less,” he said. “That’s just nothing more than a big nor’easter as far as I’m concerned.”
National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield said he was concerned people were not taking the storm seriously enough because it had weakened to a Category 2.
“We need to get people’s attention because this storm can cause a lot of damage and loss of life if people are unprepared,” he said.
At 8 p.m., Isabel was about 545 miles southeast of North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras, moving northwest at around 8 mph. It was down to a Category 2 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale of intensity, from Category 5 over the weekend.
A hurricane watch was posted from Little River Inlet, S.C., to Chincoteague, Va., including a large part of the Chesapeake Bay.
Up to 90,000 people were urged to evacuate the Outer Banks, according to Easley’s office. And about 6,000 military personnel and their families on or near Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., were ordered to leave.
After hitting land, Isabel could also spread heavy rain from North Carolina all the way to the New England states.
The last major hurricane to threaten the mid-Atlantic coast was Floyd in 1999. The Category 2 storm, with 110 mph winds, came ashore near Cape Fear, N.C., and continued along the coast into New England, causing 56 deaths and $4.6 billion in damage.
With would-be travelers encouraged to alter their plans in many cases, several airlines and Amtrak have eased their reservation policies ahead of Isabel’s expected arrival.
Navy ships manned by 13,000 sailors headed out to sea from Norfolk, Va., and Earle, N.J., to ride out the storm and keep from being battered against their piers. Military aircraft were flown to airfields inland.
In Simpson, N.C., a man preparing for Isabel accidentally burned his home down Monday when a generator he was testing caught fire.
In Atlantic City, N.J., Miss America Pageant officials said they were prepared to postpone Friday’s Boardwalk parade and even the pageant itself on Saturday, if necessary.
Isabel kept home-improvement stores bustling as people bought everything from plywood to generators to chain saws. Lowe’s estimated it sold 10,000 generators in nine days to coastal residents, and The Home Depot said it had trucks coming in from as far as Toronto and Texas to help meet demand.
Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson prayed on his Christian Broadcasting Network, based in Virginia Beach, that Isabel would turn from the coast. He asked God to put a “wall of protection” around Virginia Beach and the East Coast.
“In the name of Jesus, we reach out our hand in faith and we command that storm to cease its forward motion to the north and to turn and to go out into the sea,” Robertson prayed on “The 700 Club.”