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Weakened But Still Scary, Bertha Stalks Coastline As Carolinas Scramble

July 11, 1996

NAGS HEAD, N.C. (AP) _ Hurricane Bertha weakened somewhat today but still packed 90 mph winds as it swirled toward the Carolinas, kicking up surf and turning bustling beaches into ghost towns. Governors in both states declared states of emergency.

Evacuation orders were lifted in Florida early today. But down the lone highway along North Carolina’s Outer Banks between Nags Head and Cape Hatteras, restaurants and stores were closed. Rental cottages were empty and campgrounds deserted.

Computer models predict Bertha will probably make landfall by Friday afternoon around Cape Fear and the nearby town of Southport, N.C., not far from the South Carolina line.

There’s a small chance it could then continue up the coast but more likely would be offshore as it moves northward, forecasters said.

At 2 p.m., the hurricane was 280 miles south of Wilmington, N.C. It was moving north-northwest at about 12 mph, with hurricane-force winds that stretched out 145 miles. Wilmington, population 55,000, is not far inland from Cape Fear.

Along the coast, winds were up to 15 mph, with gusts of 25 mph, by early this afternoon. Ocean swells reached 15 feet in the waters off Wilmington, and coastal flooding could begin late today. Storm tides of up to 10 feet are expected if Bertha reaches land during high tide Friday morning, and rainfall totals in the hurricane’s path could reach 8 inches.

The storm, which had packed 100 mph winds earlier in the day, lost a little of its punch today, the National Hurricane Center said in a statement early this afternoon.

``Satellite images and reports from a reconnaissance plane indicate that Bertha has weakened during the past few hours and maximum sustained winds are near 90 mph primarily east of the center,″ the statement said. ``Some additional weakening is possible today.″

Still, the sheer size of the storm had officials taking no chances.

``Bertha is a very large hurricane that will impact a tremendous area wherever it makes landfall,″ Gov. Jim Hunt said in issuing his emergency proclamation, which lets the Emergency Management Division to use other North Carolina agencies to help deal with the hurricane.

South of the state line, Gov. David Beasley issued a similar proclamation and also ordered mandatory evacuations of coastal areas around Myrtle Beach, S.C., which could affect up to 150,000 people. Two National Guard military police units were activated to help state and local police.

At a North Carolina amusement park, a plaster gorilla stood watch over the empty playground and boarded-up storefronts, where merchants left signs like ``Kiss Me Bertha″ or ``Go Away Bertha″ to express their feelings.

Kevin and Terry Kumanga of Woodbridge, Va., loaded belongings into their station wagon at Nags Head for the trip home.

``We’re two for two. We’ve been to North Carolina twice,″ Kumanga said. ``Felix ran us out last year, and now Bertha this year.″

Evacuation advisories extended along much of the coast, including the Bogue Banks, where 40,000 residents and tourists live and play, and beaches around Wilmington to the south.

``It’s in a frenzy,″ said Chris Fink, night auditor at Shell Island Resort Hotel at Wrightsville Beach, N.C. ``Everyone’s checking out.″

Officials in Beaufort County, S.C., to the south of the area covered by the governor’s evacuation order, made house-to-house pleas for residents to leave. Some refused, at least on Wednesday.

``People want to evacuate now? Good luck to them,″ 70-year-old Henry Schulte, who has lived on Harbor Island in Beaufort County for a decade, said Wednesday. ``I’ve been through hurricanes before, and it doesn’t make sense to go anywhere before we know where the storm’s going to hit.″

After hurricane warnings were posted Wednesday from Cape Canaveral, Fla., to the Virginia line _ calling for the evacuation of nearly 1 million coastal residents _ there was a chain reaction as the storm marched north. Hurricane warnings were called off for Florida early today, but remained in effect from Brunswick, Ga., to the Virginia line. Much of the Virginia coast was under a hurricane watch.

NASA wheeled the space shuttle Atlantis off its Cape Canaveral launch pad to the shelter of a hangar. Officials at the Olympic yachting venue in Savannah, Ga., started moving boats inland, and the Navy ordered its ships in Norfolk, Va., out to sea to avoid being battered against the docks. Amtrak canceled or cut short southbound trains, and President Clinton canceled a planned flight to Florida.

One Florida death had been blamed on the storm: A 28-year-old swimmer was caught by a rip tide Wednesday at Jacksonville Beach and carried out to sea. The victim was identified as William Russell Hughson of Indianapolis, who was visiting relatives in Florida. His 16-year-old brother was rescued.

Earlier, six deaths were blamed on the storm in the Caribbean: three in Puerto Rico, one in the U.S. Virgin Islands, one in St. Martin, and a woman missing presumed dead after she fell out of a sailboat off St. Martin. A boat was reported missing off Puerto Rico with 42 people on board.

``This town is called Paranoia,″ said Frank Hunzinger, as he watched his teen-age son surf near the Flagler Beach pier.

The evacuation order for Florida, affecting about 500,000 residents, was lifted when the hurricane warnings were canceled. The last of about 25 people who spent the night at a shelter at a Jacksonville high school left before 8 a.m.

And in Daytona Beach, Anna Garifola, 74, returned to her beach home early today. ``When they said evacuate, I left. I took my birds and went to my daughter,″ she said. ``I sat through the last one, and I figured with this one, I’d better go.″ Even though she’s home again, she said she’s still going to worry, because her other daughter lives in North Carolina.

In Charleston, S.C., stately homes along the city’s historic Battery were covered and cars lined up five or six deep to buy gasoline.

At Hunting Island State Park near Beaufort, cafe worker Wendy Sumner said some tourists were still hanging around, even heading out on boats.

``Locals are taking this seriously,″ Ms. Sumner said Wednesday. ``But these out-of-towners, they keep saying to just keep them informed. I don’t know what they are thinking about, but I’m going to get out of here.″

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