Hurricane Irene: Morehead City, N.C., bracing for brunt of storm


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The scene after sundown Friday in coastal Morehead City, N.C.: Ghost streets. Darkness. A steady rain. The blur of headlights from lonely police cruisers. News crews holed up at the Hampton Inn.

Most of the fast-food places were boarded up and dim, but a local fine-dining place called Bistro by the Sea was open and catering to a few clusters of locals. Dressed Carolina golf-club casual, they sipped wine, nibbled on Atlantic Blue Crab Bisque and watched the trouble spinning toward them on a muted Weather Channel.


Among the nightly specials: a $6.95 drink called “Drink Hurricane Irene Away,” which seemed as though it was concocted to use up every last spirit behind the bar in the case the place was totaled on Saturday: vodka, gin, rum, amaretto, triple sec, grapefruit juice, pineapple juice and grenadine.

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Across town at Morehead City’s Fire Station No. 1, Wes Lail, the city’s police chief, was standing his office in a T-shirt and jeans, finishing up a conference call with federal weather officials.

The takeaway: Nobody knows where Irene is going to hit. Or when, exactly. Or how bad it’s going to be.
“She’s been wobblin’ back and forth,” Lail said. “We won’t know till she gets here.”

All they know is that it likely will be sometime Saturday. So Lail called in a double shift of fire and emergency medical workers, about 25 total. The city has three stations, but all of his firefighters were here Friday night: Lail wanted them in Station No. 1, a fancy, brick-clad, pre-Great Recession kind of public works project, completed in 2001. He figures it is the stoutest building in the city, built with a small “storm box” room in its center that is supposed to withstand 175-mph winds.

His crew was milling around the big station bay after a meal of hamburger steak, gravy, rice and corn, arranging and rearranging gear, cracking jokes over the sound of the drizzling rain. It felt a little like a locker room before a big game.

Lail said he had worked a big storm before — Hugo, back in 1989. Back then he was with the city of Hickory, N.C., in the foothills, plagued in the storm’s aftermath by flash floods and fallen trees.
“It was the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life,” he said.

Once Irene passes, he said, he didn’t know what to expect, though he pointed to the eastern portion of a county map and a group of townships collectively known as Downeast. Much of that area is at sea level, Lail said, the kind of place where buildings bear watermarks from floods past — the kind of place where firemen tell stories of swimming to their trucks.

“That’s just what they do,” he said.

These places were outside his jurisdiction, but Lail could see his crews heading Downeast on Saturday under a countywide mutual aid agreement –- although he worried about the sustained winds and what that would mean for his trucks, which, in order to get to those flood-prone townships, would have to roll over the big high-rise bridge spanning the Beaufort Inlet.

There could be work in town too of course. A loss of power could mean trouble for elderly residents on breathing machines. Amateurs clearing trees with chain saws -- always a post-storm concern. And there were the locals, he said, who might have to be “extricated from their homes, or whatever.”

Lail said he planned to crash a few hours in his office overnight with his dog Zoe, a friendly Boxer, in the hope that sleep would steel him for all of the whatever to come.


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-- Richard Fausset