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Residents Prepare for Worst as Hurricane Heads for Land

September 16, 2003|Stephen Braun and John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Hurricane Isabel churned Monday on course for a potentially destructive landfall along the mid-Atlantic seaboard, as Coast Guard officials repositioned rescue vessels, and nervous residents descended on hardware stores and food markets from the Carolinas to Maryland.

Public safety officials ordered the evacuation of nearly 1,000 residents from an isolated island in North Carolina's Outer Banks, and Virginia's governor declared a state of emergency. In Chesapeake, Va., a hardware store owner threatened to summon police to quell customers squabbling over batteries and emergency generators.

In Norfolk, Va., the Navy was making preparations to sail 40 ships and submarines out to sea to ride out the storm. "The fleet is preparing to get underway," said Lt. Scott McIlnay, a spokesman for the Atlantic Fleet.

Military aircraft based in Hampton Roads were preparing to fly inland.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami reported Monday evening that Isabel had weakened slightly as it spun in the Atlantic Ocean, still about 700 miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., and moving west-northwest at 7 mph. The storm's mountainous rain clouds stretched hundreds of miles, with sustained raking winds approaching 120 mph. The Category 3 storm packed violent gusts that on Sunday had surged as high as 160 mph.

Forecasters were projecting Isabel would cross the Outer Banks near Cape Hatteras on Thursday, then bear down on the Chesapeake Bay region. But they cautioned that the storm's tracking area remained wide and was still capable of major fluctuations -- making it difficult to pinpoint Isabel's true path.

In Portsmouth, Va., Coast Guard officials were preparing for the worst.

"We're strongly urging the maritime community to heed the hurricane warnings and seek a safe haven," Coast Guard Petty Officer Tim Pike said.

All six of the fleet's 270-foot-long cutters were shipping out from the Norfolk harbor, Pike said, along with several smaller patrol boats. The Coast Guard also was trying to decide whether to reposition its air fleet from Elizabeth City, N.C., which is also in the hurricane's projected approach.

A C-130 already had been dispatched over the Atlantic from the Coast Guard base, flying toward the hurricane and searching for boats that might have missed warnings broadcast all day over maritime radio channels.

"In response to the approach of Hurricane Isabel, severe winds of 74 mph or higher may affect this area," the message repeated. "Mariners are advised to take prudent action."

In Morehead City, N.C., Lynette Franklin of Coral Bay Marina Yacht Sales & Service said her phones were "ringing off the wall" as boat owners sought storage space on dry land for their yachts and other power craft.

Smaller boats were being stacked three and four high on racks. "For the larger boats," she said, "we'll just be double roping them [to moorings] and praying."

On the Outer Banks island of Ocracoke -- linked to the mainland only by ferry -- 921 residents were ordered to evacuate at noon Monday by Hyde County Sheriff L. B. Johnson. The sheriff said by telephone that he expected residents of the lowlands along the Carolina coast also would be told to head west, away from the open water, today.

"We're evacuating the nursing home," he said. "We're not sure what we're going to do about the prison yet." Johnson said county emergency officials expected Isabel to "hit around noon Thursday, with winds of around 125 mph when it makes landfall." As he spoke, county commissioners were meeting to declare a state of emergency.

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner did the same Monday, placing National Guardsmen, state police and road crews on alert.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley canceled all leaves for police, fire, transportation and public works officials, preparing "as if the storm is coming right at us."

When Wentz Hardware in Chesapeake, Va., opened Monday morning, there was a jittery crowd outside. Within minutes, said owner Larry Simpson, customers had lugged off four 150-pound generators at $999 apiece and were arguing with each other over shrinking stocks of batteries, plastic stripping, flashlights and tools.

"I had to threaten to call the cops," he said. "Lord, they were hovering like ants!"

Residents hunkering down on the North Carolina coast also were picking store shelves clean.

Angie Brady, a spokeswoman for the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce in Kill Devil Hills, said "people are getting ready as best as they can," hoarding drinking water and plywood to board up windows.

Isabel is the first major hurricane to threaten the mid-Atlantic region since Floyd wreaked havoc in September 1999, leading to 56 deaths.

When Floyd barreled ashore south of Moorhead City, N.C., it raised the level of Pelletier Creek so high that downtown offices flooded with 6 inches of water.

"We've never had a hurricane hit as directly as this one is predicted, and that's why it's scary," Brady said.

*

Braun reported from Washington and Dahlburg from Miami.

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