Thousands Flee Outer Banks as Hurricane Felix Approaches
MANTEO, N.C. (AP) _ Thousands of people crowded bridges and ferries Tuesday, fleeing North Carolina’s Outer Banks for the mainland as Hurricane Felix took dead aim at the coast.
A sunny afternoon gave way to a cloudy night sky as the hurricane churned at 80 mph hundreds of miles out at sea, and storm surf already thundered against the beaches.
Forecasters estimated the broad storm’s most-punishing winds would most likely hit land early Thursday along the North Carolina and Virginia coast.
Traffic through Manteo, on an island between Nags Head and the mainland, was bumper-to-bumper during the day with cars toting surfboards strapped to their roofs and recreational vehicles pulling jet skis and boats to safety.
``Nobody seemed real scared,″ said tourist Jeff Mahone, stopping for lunch in Manteo with Teresa Dermody after they cut short their Nags Heads vacation and headed back toward Richmond, Va.
The highway inland from the Outer Banks was quiet as nighttime winds picked up.
At least three people died in the surf since the weekend, and lifeguards closed East Coast beaches as far north as Maine.
In all, about 73,500 residents and tourists were told to evacuate Ocracoke Island, all of Dare County including Hatteras Island, and large parts of Carteret County on the mainland. People cannot be forced to leave.
The Navy sent warships out to open sea from the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia to keep them from smashing into each other and their piers. Military airplanes were flown inland from coastal bases.
Ice cream shop owner Bill Watson taped the windows on his Nags Head store, where he lost $4,700 worth of merchandise in the area’s last hurricane, Emily, in 1993. ``It’s the price you pay for living in paradise,″ he said.
Hurricane warnings were posted from north of Little River Inlet in South Carolina north to Chincoteague, Va., a distance of about 420 miles.
A hurricane watch _ a less severe form of advisory than a warning _ was in effect for coastal areas of South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware on either side of the warning area.
``This storm is very big and widespread,″ said Tom Ditt, North Carolina state emergency management spokesman. ``It’s going to hit everywhere along the coast in some degree.″
Hurricane-force winds, 74 mph and up, extended from the center out 140 miles, and tropical storm-force winds, 39 to 74 mph, extended out 230 miles, the National Weather Service said.
The heart of the storm was 285 miles east-southeast of Cape Hatteras at 11 p.m. rolling toward the west-northwest at 15 mph and slowing slightly. Top sustained winds remained 80 mph, and some strenghthening was expected as the storm slowed.
Felix battered Bermuda on Monday, leaving thousands of residents without electricity Tuesday. Only one of two local radio stations was operating, and cable television was knocked out for a short time. A causeway to the island’s airport had to be repaired; regular airline flights were expected to resume Wednesday.
Bermuda indefinitely postponed Tuesday’s referendum on independence from Britain because of power outages and streets blocked by fallen trees.
In North Carolina, only two roads connect the Outer Banks to the mainland, and sand and water covered some sections of pavement. Ocracoke Island is accessible only by boat, including a ferry connecting it to Hatteras Island.
Eight ferries made that run Tuesday, with every boat full by afternoon, said Melinda Tolson.
``If it’s no more than 100 mph, we’ll probably stick it out,″ said Pam Gladden, who helps her mother manage the Blue Heron Motel in Nags Head.
``Most people who live here want to stay. I like ’em,″ said Buddy Payne, who works at Crocketts Seafood Market in Manteo, which sits on Roanoke Island.
He said there were few places to take refuge on the low-lying island.
``I guess you just put on your boots,″ Payne said.
The last hurricane to hit North Carolina was Emily, which brushed the Outer Banks in August 1993, causing extensive damage but only in small pockets. Hazel in 1954 was the last major hurricane to hit the coast, causing widespread damage.