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Bertha Rips N. Carolina With 105 mph Winds

July 13, 1996|MARK LACEY and JAMES BORNEMEIER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CAROLINA BEACH, N.C. — Hurricane Bertha smacked the Carolina coast Friday like the back of the devil's hand, hurling its 35-mile eye across Cape Fear, blinding the beachfront with rain and wrecking homes and businesses with 105 mph winds that hurled deadly shards of glass through the streets.

Skies darkened. Trees tumbled onto power lines and plunged thousands of people into a blackout. Riptides and 8-foot breakers crashed into boardwalks. Hurricane-force winds reached 30 miles inland and spawned a tornado that sheared away part of the roof on a horse barn during a 4-H show. Despite the destruction, no casualties were reported.

The hurricane churned up the coast and turned slightly east. At 8 p.m. EDT, it was 60 miles west of Pamlico Sound and heading toward North Carolina's barrier islands. Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm would coincide with high astronomical tides along the Outer Banks, where North Carolina juts farthest out into the Atlantic Ocean.

The confluence of tides and the most punishing winds that Bertha had to offer, to the east and north of the spooky calm in its eye, would make the Outer Banks particularly hazardous today, said Jerry Jarrell, deputy director of the hurricane center. "Twelve feet above mean tide," Jarrell predicted, "would cover most of the roads on the Outer Banks."

From there, Jarrell said, Bertha would diminish into a tropical storm, straddle the East Coast and feed on warm ocean water as it rolled north along Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay, and then Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and New York. "We see it as a very serious storm going into New England," he said, "with heavy rains, and gusty winds."

More than 250,000 residents and vacationers fled the North and South Carolina coast, but 14,500 others took refuge Thursday night at 50 shelters opened by the Red Cross in both states. The number of people taking refuge dropped to 7,000 on Friday as Bertha took direct aim at Cape Fear and spared coastal communities in South Carolina of its most destructive violence.

Bertha struck straight at seven or eight people who climbed into Old Baldy, the oldest lighthouse in North Carolina, on Bald Head Island at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, said Tony Davis, a paramedic on the island. They could not be reached for a description of the storm, but Davis said that at midafternoon Old Baldy was in the teeth of the hurricane.

The eye of the storm crossed the tip of Cape Fear shortly before 3 p.m. EDT, then passed east of the lighthouse. "They put a generator and stuff up there," Davis said, "and anyone that wanted to was welcome to go up." He said that Old Baldy, which has guided boat pilots for more than 150 years and weathered three wars, withstood Bertha's assault.

"About 30 people stayed on the island," Davis said by telephone. "Some stayed at the Fire Department and some at the Town Hall. The eye just went over, and we're catching the tail end of it now." The island has an enclave of expensive homes. Davis said most of the damage seemed to be to trees in their yards, several of which blew down.

During the night, Bertha had seemed to be pulling its punch; its winds dropped to 80 mph. But then it whipped itself back up to 105 mph on Friday morning before it made landfall. From Cape Fear, the eye of the storm swirled north over Kure Beach, a narrow island between the Cape Fear River and the ocean. At least three piers suffered severe damage.

The storm ravaged one house like a wrecking ball. It flung pieces of window glass sideways into the street. As the hurricane drenched the island, it spun off tornadoes hundreds of miles inland. The tornado at the 4-H show was spawned close enough to the seacoast to be powered with gusts of wind that reached a velocity comparable to Bertha itself.

As the hurricane swirled farther north to Carolina Beach, it swamped homes and businesses with water and toppled a Ferris wheel at an amusement center called Jubilee Park. The Ferris wheel crashed into a carousel and smashed several of its wooden horses. As a final violent insult, the wind blew over a children's train ride.

By now, Carolina Beach and other coastal towns were without power, affecting at least 75,000 people. Dollar estimates of damage were not available, but officials said much of the harm would be from losses such as those at Jubilee Park, which depends upon tourism. Lost income from vacationers, they said, was costing millions of dollars a day.

John Green, 29, wearing a bandanna and two days of stubble, staggered along the Carolina Beach waterfront, surveying damage at a T-shirt stand and video store. A policeman told him to find shelter. Green ignored the order. Debris hurtled past and palm trees swayed. Green struggled to keep moving. Bertha began spitting rain and flying sand.

Finally, he surrendered and took refuge. "A pretty good wind," he said, with resignation.

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