NEW BERN, N.C. — Hurricane Bonnie attacked coastal North Carolina with devastating fury on Wednesday, flooding homes, streets and public buildings, tearing the roof from a hospital and knocking out power to at least 240,000 business and residential customers.
Wavering but fearsome, Bonnie stumbled ashore at Cape Fear and began to stagger uncertainly northward, carving a meandering swath of destruction as it went.
Debris flew through the air as oceanfront structures began to give way after hours of pounding by winds, waves and flood waters.
By late in the day, the powerful storm--fading slightly but still carrying sustained winds of 105 mph--was beginning to slow its northward march, turning rapidly into forecasters' worst-case scenario.
The storm's progress slowed from 12 mph to 10, then to 8, then to 6, then to less than 2. Meteorologists feared that the hurricane would stall during two high tides, spawning massive waves that could sweep well inland and cause enormous damage.
The inland flooding threat was compounded by the possibility that the slow-moving storm could drop as much as 20 inches of rain in some areas by late today, generating tremendous runoff.
Officials said peak winds from the storm could tarry over North Carolina well into today, reversing surface currents and boosting water levels in Albemarle and Currituck sounds, just south of the Virginia border, by as much as 11 feet.
"We're not talking about one burst of water, like a tidal wave," said Richard Moore, North Carolina's public safety director. "We're talking about the water being backed up in our sounds for as long as the hurricane lingers."
States of emergency and curfews were declared up and down the coast, from Cape Fear in the south to Virginia Beach, Va., on the north. As many as 500,000 residents and summer vacationers had fled inland as the hurricane approached, and officials pleaded with those who remained along the coast to stay indoors.
Few needed to be told. Every school was closed, every business boarded up. Hundreds sought safety in schools and other makeshift shelters.
Forty-seven people who didn't get out on time broke into the Bald Head Island lighthouse near Cape Fear to take refuge there as Bonnie bore down on them.
"It certainly would be better than one of the more modern houses," said Andy James, a spokesman for North Carolina's emergency response team. "It's been there a long time, and it's weathered a lot of storms."
Brunswick Community Hospital, about 10 miles north of the cape, began evacuating patients after Bonnie tore off part of the roof. A few miles farther north, in Wilmington, the battering winds smashed out windows at New Hanover Hospital.
Wilmington is where Hurricane Fran came ashore two years ago, claiming 24 lives and causing damage estimated at $5.2 billion.
Jay Lowe, a Texas-based State Farm Insurance agent specializing in hurricane coverage, said he's been in Wilmington so often that he's staked out a favorite phone booth.
"I was here two years ago with Bertha," he said. "Forty days later, I'm down here with Fran in the same phone booth. Now, here I am again."
Sitting in his white pickup truck, Chris Wiggins of nearby Wrightsville Beach took one last look at his moored boat, the Hammerhead, before heading inland Wednesday morning.
"I've seen three go by so far--out of control, gone, just floating," Wiggins said, fearing that his boat would suffer the same fate. "It's insured. What happens, happens."
As Wiggins headed out, Dave and Samuel Scott, elderly brothers from the Bronx, in New York, headed in. The Scott brothers drove into the teeth of the storm to attend the birthday party of their sister, Dolethea.
"There was 10 of us, now there's only three left," said Samuel, who's 78. "She'll be 87 Sunday, and no storm was going to stop us."
The brothers made the 12-hour drive from New York without any trouble--until they hit torrential rains near New Bern, about 100 miles north of Wilmington. As darkness fell in New Bern, the last of the Scotts gathered with others around the TV set in the Ramada Inn's Dockside Bar and Grill.
"I've been through 10 of these," said John Frazier, a deeply tanned seaman who lives on his 36-foot trawler. "I think if we can get through high tide, we'll be home free."
Others were not so sure.
Betty Montgomery wondered what fate awaited her 100-year-old oak trees and her little house on Emerald Isle, south of Morehead City, where rains and winds had been hammering away all day.
Her husband built that house 14 years ago, and it was his great passion. Her husband is gone now, dead less than a month ago. And Betty Montgomery knew that by dawn, the house could be gone too.
About 200 miles farther north, in Virginia Beach, T-shirts emblazoned with "I survived Hurricane Bonnie" went on sale well before the first storm waves hit. But by nightfall, with concerns rising as fast as the surf, officials in Virginia Beach advised people there to seek shelter.