The wild winds of Hurricane Emily, gusting at more than 130 m.p.h., slapped at the Outer Banks islands Tuesday, then veered north along the Eastern Seaboard, sparing most of North Carolina but terrorizing tourists and residents from Virginia to Long Island.
Fifteen-foot waves slammed the pier at this tiny town on the Outer Banks as the hurricane conspired with an 8 p.m. EDT high tide, tugged even higher by a full moon. Trees crashed across roads, and rain swamped cars. The wind peaked at 132 m.p.h. at a light tower southeast of Cape Hatteras. Pounding surf drowned a swimmer off Virginia.
But the eye of the storm never hit land. Swirling wind in the eye wall--the fiercest part of the hurricane--swept across Cape Hatteras, encountered an offshore cold front and skittered upward along the coast, sending vacationers scurrying to safety from Virginia to as far away as New York’s Fire Island, where 20,000 people were ordered to flee.
At 11 p.m. local time, Emily’s eye hovered 90 miles southeast of Virginia Beach, Va. It was moving north-northeast at about 13 m.p.h., with sustained winds estimated at 115 m.p.h. The storm was expected to skirt the Mid-Atlantic coast, then turn to the northeast today and blow back out to sea. If it does so without a wobble, most of the East Coast will escape.
Emily passed the Outer Banks as the full moon tide peaked at about 8 p.m. The combination of storm, tide and moon raised ocean swells to 15 feet. More than 150,000 people already had fled the barrier islands and the nearby coast of North Carolina. Heavy surf washed across the barrier beaches from the Atlantic Ocean on the outside and Pamlico Sound inside.
One road connects the Outer Banks. It was closed to all but local residents from Hatteras to Nags Head. Ferry service to Ocracoke Island was disrupted by high seas. Waves crashed through two houses at Kitty Hawk, where the Wright Brothers made the first controlled, sustained flights in a power-driven airplane.
Both houses fell into the Atlantic. Officials said the houses, badly battered by earlier storms, already had been condemned.
The Outer Banks had a spooky feeling of abandonment. Expensive beachfront homes stood boarded up and deserted. Streets were empty, stores closed, shopping malls lifeless. The wind raged across sand dunes, buffeting the pines and wax myrtle bushes.
In the little town of Southern Shores, Vernon Hart and Elizabeth Sawyer sat by the ambulance they drive, surveying a lone car making its way through afternoon rain.
Its headlights glared.
“This is how it used to be years ago,” Sawyer said, “before all the tourists discovered the Outer Banks.”
Ed Brooks, owner of Tommy’s Market, one of the few stores that stayed open, said: “All the tourists I know left, except for a couple from Denver.
“They were just determined to stay and they asked me, from my experience, what I’d advise. I told the man, ‘You’re not big enough or strong enough to take on a 100-m.p.h. wind. Stay inside and stay away from the ocean. And frankly, be ready to be excited because hurricanes are exciting as hell.”
In the town of Duck, Dick Murphy, a retired Army officer, and his wife, Susan, a realtor, filled their bathtub with water, put their patio furniture in the swimming pool and placed three heavy-duty flashlights on the kitchen counter.
“It’s an eerie feeling, like waiting for a blizzard in New England,” Murphy said. “But it’s worse than a blizzard because you know there’s going to be damage along the coast and you feel for those people.”
To lessen the possibility of looting, beer and alcohol sales were banned in Duck and surrounding Dare County.
“Have I thought about evacuating?” asked resident Glen Miller. “Sure, every minute I think about it. I’d leave in a minute if the winds were going to be 150 m.p.h. But this house has seen 115-m.p.h. winds. It can handle that.”
Of gravest concern to Miller was his beloved 20-foot powerboat, Carefree. He lashed it down in a marina slip and took a photograph of it--just in case it didn’t make it through the night.
Outer Banks residents said the ocean was likely to breach some protective dunes along coast roads and that some beachfront homes could be endangered by eroding sands.
“You’re going to have wooden walkways carried away, shingles blown off,” said Dan Purcel, a carpenter. “Same thing happened when (Hurricane) Gloria came through here a couple of years ago. I was busy for six weeks after that one, fixing up people’s homes.”
On Atlantic Beach, an Outer Banks island off Morehead City, N.C., windows in homes and businesses were covered with boards. Restaurants were closed, and the Sheraton and Holiday Inn hotels were evacuated.
The only public place to eat was McDonald’s.
Carol Lohr, director of tourism for Carteret County, which includes Atlantic Beach, Morehead City and Beaufort, the third-oldest city in North Carolina, called the area “truly blessed” because the worst of the hurricane had passed it by.
Nevertheless, she said, the close call cost the county at least $250,000 in tourism, which brings in about $210 million a year.
Lohr said Atlantic Beach lost two conventions because of the hurricane, including a group of emergency management employees.
As night approached, police removed barricades from the beachfront.
Among the first vacationers to return were Chad Voorhees, a furniture designer, and his family from Morehead City.
“It’s kind of a letdown,” Voorhees said, “when you get excited about a storm, buy all the supplies, and then nothing really happens.”
“But,” responded his daughter, Paige, 9, “we did get two days off from school.”
Farther out on the islands, winds gusting to nearly 100 m.p.h. blew the roofs off buildings on Ocracoke and Hatteras.
The North Carolina Power Co. cut off electricity to both islands after transformers toppled from utility poles onto the main highway, which was washed out in several places.
In the town of Buxton, on Hatteras Island, more than a half-foot of rain washed out roadways and flooded cars in a parking lot at a bank. Wind tore the roof off a building at the U.S. Coast Guard station. It uprooted trees and hurled them across streets, blocking traffic.
The National Weather Service in Buxton reported that its yard was flooded.
Residents of Roanoke Island, between the Outer Banks and the mainland, stayed glued to their television sets, hoping that the natural buffers on both sides would save their homes from the worst of the storm.
Few vehicles were on the roads. A driver crossing a bridge into an area known as East Dismal Swamp had the structure to himself, but for two water-soaked young men and a television news crew.
Inland in New Bern, hotels had filled up quickly with people fleeing the Outer Banks, and merchants had begun taping their plate glass windows. But when the hurricane turned north, all they had to contend with were overcast skies.
Hotel guests from the Outer Banks began canceling the remainder of their reservations, and the hotels began emptying out again.
To the north in Virginia Beach, Va., violent waves were blamed for the disappearance of 15-year-old Anthony J. Turner of nearby Chesapeake, Va., who defied the closing of the beachfront.
Virginia Beach police and the U.S. Coast Guard suspended their search for him after two hours, said Master Police Officer Mike Carey, a department spokesman. With the waves growing ever more violent, he said, “we can’t even launch any of our rescue boats.”
The city--Virginia’s most populous, with 402,822 residents--declared an optional evacuation of beachfront homes and hotels and opened five emergency shelters in local schools.
Tourists deserted beachfront hotels up and down Atlantic Avenue, but many residents adopted a wait and see approach.
Virginia Beach has little natural protection from the waves. One of its highest points, Mt. Trashmore, a public park built atop a landfill, is just 68 feet above sea level. But the course of the storm made it difficult for city officials to prepare their response.
“This has been one of the most unpredictable storms we’ve ever worked on,” said Pamela M. Lingle, the city’s director of public information. “We’re telling people they can stay or leave, whatever they’re comfortable with.”
In a residential area of the city, called Sandbridge, several miles south of the tourist hotels, Jeff Denardo set up a do-it-yourself storm protection shop in a dusty parking lot where Sandbridge Road dead-ends at the ocean.
He called his enterprise “Wheeling and Dealing” and offered four-by-eight-foot sheets of plywood for $11.50 and $13.50 each, depending on thickness. Within two hours, he had sold 70 sheets to homeowners boarding up their windows. He also offered hammers, nails and masking tape.
In Virginia Beach and 20 miles away in Norfolk, where the U.S. Navy maintains its largest base, dozens of aircraft and warships were sent out of harm’s way--the ships to sea, where they are less vulnerable, and the planes to bases out of the storm’s path.
The Navy sandbagged vulnerable sections of its Dam Neck Fleet Combat Training Center and evacuated about 1,800 people from the base.
Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder declared a state of emergency and placed the National Guard on alert.
Lamb reported from Duck, N.C.; Gerstenzang from Virginia Beach, Va. Special correspondent Mike Clary in Atlantic Beach, N.C., and Times staff writers Eric Harrison in New Bern, N.C., and Richard E. Meyer in Los Angeles contributed to this story.
A Coastal Attack
Forecasters predicted that coastal areas would get 4- to 8-foot storm surges, on top of tides that were already high because of a full moon. The surges are triggered in the storm’s eye, when a violent drop in pressure creates a “plunger effect.” Walls of high water radiate outward, flooding low coastal areas.
Surges cause drownings and property damage.
How a Storm Destroys a Home
1) Pressure differences from high winds force low roof upward.
2) Winds get under porch or over-heads and lift roof.
3) Wind rushing into broken windows helps lift roof.
Sources: National Climatic Data Center, Associated Press