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Bertha Threatens Carolinas, Kicks Up Wave of Evacuees

Weather: Tens of thousands of people head inland as weaker but still dangerous hurricane rolls across Outer Banks. Storm should hit mainland today.

July 12, 1996|JAMES BORNEMEIER and MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SOUTHPORT, N.C. — Tens of thousands of people, many of them tourists, fled inland Thursday as the hungry wind of Hurricane Bertha howled across the Outer Banks and threatened to devour the Carolina coast.

The governors of North and South Carolina declared emergencies in 36 counties, giving state officials authority to enforce evacuation orders, call out the National Guard and remove any local officials who refused to cooperate. Restaurants closed. So did stores. Beach cottages emptied, and so did campgrounds.

At midnight EDT, Bertha was about 220 miles south of Wilmington, N.C., and churning northwest at 10 mph. It packed sustained winds of 80 mph, down from 105 mph earlier in the day. The National Hurricane Center in Miami said the eye of the storm would cross land between Charleston, S.C., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., at about noon today.

In its path northwest from the Caribbean, Bertha has left seven dead: one in Florida and the other six in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and St. Martin. In addition, a 4-year-old boy, Sean Cannon, was killed and his mother, Robin, 31, was hurt in the crash of an Air Force F-16 jet fighter being evacuated to avoid the hurricane.

The plane, flying from Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., experienced engine failure Thursday about 20 miles north of Pensacola, Fla. It crashed into the child's home and scattered wreckage throughout the neighborhood. The pilot, Capt. Frederick G. Hartwig, 35, ejected safely into a tree, but the house burned.

Although Bertha was losing punch, said Jerry Jarrell, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, "this is a huge hurricane, so it's going to create a strong surge and large waves. It can do real damage." He said winds of hurricane force--74 mph at minimum--extended 115 miles east of the eye of the storm.

"The whole storm," Jarrell said, "is the size of Georgia."

Bertha will linger over land, he predicted, then lose strength and turn into a nor'easter. With rainfall expected to climb to 8 inches, Jarrell warned, "[Bertha's] real threat may be as a rainmaker over the mountains" when the remnants of the hurricane push inland. "Rain in the mountains," he said, "could be a killer."

As winds with the force of a tropical storm reached the Outer Banks, residents and vacationers alike fled Myrtle Beach in lines of cars and trucks that stretched for miles along the roadways. By evening, there was no traffic at all on Ocean Boulevard, usually teeming with tourists.

The financial impact was sizable: Along the length of South Carolina beaches, called the Grand Strand, an estimated 175,000 vacationers spend more than $14 million a day each summer, state parks spokesman Lou Fontana told the Associated Press.

Other tourists and residents by the thousands fled along a honeycomb of highways in North Carolina that stitch the city of Wilmington, population 55,000, to seaside communities stretching from Calabash north to Wrightsville Beach.

Many businesses in Wilmington took no chances. With the first gusts of wind, employees taped the windows at a Circuit City store and a nearby restaurant called Mr. Chopstix.

Officials in the coastal communities ordered more than 100,000 people to leave for higher ground. At the town of Southport, across a bay from Cape Fear, residents carefully taped their windows before abandoning scores of homes and house trailers.

Although Southport declared a 9 p.m. curfew, no one at the Harbor Light, a cinder block saloon with a bar, a jukebox and a pool table, paid much attention. "Business is a little off," said Mark St. Ana, the owner. "Some folks took off or are staying in, but we'll probably stay open until 11:30 or midnight."

St. Ana planned to spend the night in his establishment, after his patrons left. He knew there was not much he could do if things got nasty. "Some of us are fearless," he declared. "The rest of us are stupid."

John McIlvaine, working on his third beer, which sold for $4 a pitcher, had taken modest precautions. He had moved his car to the Food Lion market, for instance, hardly high ground--but the highest around.

"Southport is going to get hit," McIlvaine said, proudly. "It's going to hit us smack-on."

Over at the town of Boiling Springs, Steve Larson, a captain in the volunteer Fire Department, was stationed with his pumper and crew at the Old Brunswick gas stop and grill. "We spread the five trucks around in case we're needed," Larson said. "You don't want to drive 20 miles to help somebody out."

One of his recruits, Justin McLeod, said the surrounding pine trees were not likely to rip out of the ground during the hurricane because their roots were so deep. "They're more likely," he said, with small comfort, "to snap in half."

In a new townhouse development near Orton, Charles LaGrue stood shirtless in the muggy evening air. With one hand, he held a long-necked bottle of beer. "I'm staying," he declared boldly. "We laid in some supplies."

He glanced at his drink. "I'm not too worried."

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