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Bertha’s Hurricane Force Winds Strike Carolina Coast

July 12, 1996

SUNSET BEACH, N.C. (AP) _ Hurricane Bertha lashed the Carolina coast today, its fierce winds ripping apart roofs, smashing windows and flinging debris sideways as its leading edge raked across fragile barrier islands.

Bertha weakened, then revived over the Gulf Stream, and its top sustained winds grew to 105 mph at its center. But gusts over 105 mph already were being reported along the coast, about 100 miles to the north.

The 35-mile wide eye was speeding north at 15 mph on a path that would take it directly over Cape Fear, through a wealthy enclave on Bald Head Island and scores of beach communities on slender islands along the coast.

``It’s phenomenal. If anybody ever tells you they’ve seen a serious storm, you can call them a liar. This is incredible,″ said Roger Rigg, who lives on Carolina Beach at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

The streets were flooded, debris was flying and Rigg heard glass breaking at his neighbors’ houses. Electricity was out for much of the area.

``Hurricane Central,″ said Allen Sipe as he answered the phone at his full-time home in Kure Beach, several miles south. ``It’s rocking and rolling down here. ... The house is just shuddering when the wind blows.″

The hurricane was closely tracking the path of Hurricane Hazel, which killed 19 people and caused $136 million in damage in North Carolina in 1954 after barreling up the Cape Fear River and over Wilmington with 150 mph winds.

Bertha was a much weaker Category 2 storm, but still capable of causing moderate damage, most likely this evening when the eye makes landfall, forecasters said.

``It’s getting pretty nasty down here,″ said Ed Taylor, a spokesman for Wrightsville Beach and one of the last of 20,000 people to flee the narrow island just east of Wilmington.

More than 250,000 residents and vacationers fled inland on clogged highways in advance of the storm. Almost 14,500 people, many of them turned away from packed hotels, stayed in Red Cross shelters overnight.

Tom and Martha Curry of Wilmington tried to avoid the storm’s fury at Trask Middle School, glad to be out of their trailer.

``We’ve experienced hurricanes in Florida and New Orleans, and they weren’t any fun, so when I hear one’s coming, I start looking for a safer place,″ Mrs. Curry said.

About 7,000 people remained in 50 shelters in North Carolina and South Carolina today, as hurricane warnings remained in force from Savannah, Ga., to the Virginia line.

``The response has been very orderly,″ American Red Cross acting president Gene Dyson said in Wilmington. ``People have done basically as they have been told, although there are a few who always want to experience a hurricane.″

Bertha’s winds had been as high as 115 mph when the hurricane battered the Caribbean, killing six people. The wind weakened to 80 mph Thursday before strengthening to 105 mph this morning.

At 1 p.m. today, Bertha’s eye was about 85 miles south of Wilmington, moving north at 13 mph, and hurricane-force winds of at least 74 mph extended out 115 miles from the center.

Bertha was pushing possible storm surges of 7 to 9 feet and dumping up to 5 inches of rain, quickly flooding low-lying areas. Most of Bald Head Island is only 5 to 10 feet above sea level, and other nearby islands don’t rise above 15 feet.

The fear that escape routes from the Outer Banks and other areas might be washed out prompted Gov. Jim Hunt to declare an emergency in 34 counties, giving the state power to enforce evacuation orders, call out the National Guard and remove local officials who refuse to cooperate. About 100,000 people in North Carolina fled.

South Carolina Gov. David Beasley also imposed a state of emergency, forcing an estimated 150,000 people to flee inland from the Grand Strand _ the 60 miles of beaches from Georgetown to the North Carolina line.

This is one of the busiest weeks of the year for the strip of South Carolina resorts, where an estimated 175,000 tourists spend more than $14 million a day, officials said.

But as Bertha’s first winds moved inland, many cities became ghost towns.

Myrtle Beach’s Ocean Boulevard, normally jammed with tourists on summer afternoons, was deserted _ although the sign for the Myrtle Beach Pavilion and Amusement Park still blazed above covered rides and boarded-up souvenir stands.

Another more timely message was scrawled on plywood covering the windows of a souvenir stand: ``Hey Bertha, Want Your Belly Pierced?″

Traffic was bumper-to-bumper on U.S. 501, the main evacuation route to the west. Two National Guard police units helped with traffic control.

Residents and tourists filled shelters and hotel rooms as far inland as Florence, S.C., and Raleigh.

John Robinson of Cleveland said he, his wife and two sons flew down Wednesday and paid for a week at a hotel on the beach.

``They kicked us out. I was ready to ride it out,″ he said. ``I was ready to just sit in my hotel room and watch the fireworks.″

Sandi Parag, manager of the Castaways Motel for the past 18 years, did not object to the evacuation at her busiest time of year.

``They’re better safe than sorry,″ she said. ``I’d rather see them off the beach than to be down here and be hurt.″

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