Up and down the aisles of the Sea Merchants grocery store in the North Carolina seaside town of Carolina Beach, locals hustled to pick up last-minute supplies of Bud Light and batteries, dog food and Ritz crackers, honeybuns and boiled peanuts.
Ashley Parks, a tanned 33-year-old house cleaner in an aqua sundress, had been all set to leave her little yellow bungalow about a block from the beach — until her best friend, Jamie, called and asked if she and her pets could stay.
Parks made a snap decision: Riding out the approaching Hurricane Florence might be easier than leaving with her three dogs and three cats in tow. They’d make it a party, she figured. Cook out on the grill.
But she admitted that, in TV reports, the storm looked “kind of big and scary.”
Big and scary indeed. With what was shaping up as one of the most powerful storms in a generation due to make landfall on Friday or early Saturday in the Carolinas, state and federal authorities pleaded with residents to obey evacuation orders, secure homes and stock up on necessary supplies.
Florence is predicted to have devastating effects over a wide swath of territory, bringing howling winds and torrential downpours across an arc of southeastern states from Georgia to Virginia.
Carolina Beach lies on a sliver of barrier island a dozen miles south of Wilmington, nestled between the Atlantic and the Cape Fear River. The eastbound lane of Snow's Cut Bridge, the only point of entry to the island, was closing Wednesday evening at 8.
Once winds reach 45 mph, the entire bridge was to close. And authorities were sounding a stark warning: You’ll be on your own.
From President Trump on down, officials used drastic language to describe the storm’s power. North Carolina’s governor, Roy Cooper, implored coastal residents to flee while they still could.
“The time to prepare is almost over,” he said at a news conference Wednesday. “Disaster is at the doorstep.”
In neighboring South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster made a similar plea.
“The thing to do is get away from the storm — you gotta get away from what’s coming,” he said. “At some point, the rescuers will not be able to rescue you.”
With train service and flights already curtailed, the exodus from a long stretch of coastline, extending through the Carolinas and into Virginia, clogged highways and filled motels and hotels farther inland. Shoppers depleted store shelves of basics like bottled water, diapers and batteries, and motorists searched for available gas.
As the storm approached, the U.S. military sent ships out to sea and repositioned aircraft. Major military installations evacuated nonessential personnel and families, while also readying troops to assist as needed. North Carolina activated 2,800 members of its state National Guard.
Although the National Hurricane Center was warning of storm surges higher than many homes, some were simply trusting their luck.
“I’m praying for no surges; my house is just 4 feet off the ground,” Parks said as she took a puff of her vape and tossed fig bars into a shopping buggy piled high with Cheetos, sugar-iced oatmeal cookies and tortilla chips.
“Stay safe, hon!” called out Rachel Houze, the 33-year-old cashier.
Despite officials’ pleas, nearly half of the town’s 6,300 permanent residents appeared to remain on the island Wednesday afternoon, said Joe Benson, the mayor of Carolina Beach.
“They’ll be facing a storm the likes of which hasn’t happened in maybe a hundred years,” he said. “We’ve told them, ‘You’re essentially on your own. Don’t expect to be rescued if you come into trouble.’”
On Wednesday, police and fire officials went door to door alerting people to leave the island — and, striking a grim note, encouraging anyone staying to provide names and contact information for their next of kin. By early evening Wednesday, Florence was barreling toward the coastline, less than 400 miles from Wilmington, with sustained winds of 120 mph.
“When wind speeds get above 50 mph, I won’t be sending out any of our police and fire,” warned town manager Michael Cramer.
Mike Patel, the Sea Merchants’ genial 50-year-old owner, looked worried as he contemplated the fate of longtime customers and the small midcentury grocery store a few blocks from the beach that he has owned for four years.
Built in 1949, the squat concrete and glass grocery store has weathered many hurricanes, including Hazel, a powerful Category 4 hurricane that made landfall in 1954 and wiped out a section of the island.
Patel planned to close in a few hours, and was not sure his store would survive.
“They say this storm is going to be like a washing machine,” he said. “I have to be ready to rebuild.”
At least 1.7 million people in three states — North and South Carolina, along with Virginia — were told to leave coastal areas. By Wednesday, all three, along with Maryland and Georgia, had declared states of emergency.
Once the storm arrives, forecasters say, it might linger for days, dumping relentless rains in a manner reminiscent of last year’s Hurricane Harvey, which ravaged Houston as it inundated already soaked ground, flooding zones previously considered safe from rising waters.
Officials warned that tens of thousands of people may be without power for days on end, or find themselves cut off by raging floodwaters.
“This may be a marathon, not a sprint,” said Cooper, the North Carolina governor. “Expect this storm to batter our state for days.”
In Carolina Beach, though, the holdouts perusing the Sea Merchants’ emptying shelves remained stubborn.
“I ain’t leaving my house,” said Kenneth Cavanaugh, a 54-year-old mason, citing worries over looters. His phone buzzed: another call from his brother, James, in North Dakota, urging him to “get off the beach.”
Cavanaugh admitted to some nervousness. He planned to go home to board up his windows and fill up his pool with water to flush toilets.
Then he would hunker down with his girlfriend and two roommates. At least five families on his block of Sumter Avenue planned to ride out the storm, he said.
Cavanaugh glanced at his cart full of chicken wings, milk, mozzarella sticks, peanut butter and coffee creamer. Out on the beach, the surf surged. And far out to sea, the storm just kept bearing down.
“I hope I’m prepared,” he said.