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Coast Readies for Weakened Isabel

North Carolinians leave the Outer Banks in droves as Virginians hole up with extra supplies. The hurricane is expected Thursday.

September 17, 2003|Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writer

KILMARNOCK, Va. — Residents along the exposed coast of the Chesapeake Bay braced Tuesday for the approach of a shrunken but still-potent Hurricane Isabel the way they take on any storm -- stocking up on essentials and laying plans for the mess that surely will follow.

"We got beer on ice and we're greasing up the chain saws," said Steve Self, 33, as he made a supply run to a discount store along with his 9-year-old son, Paul, and Mike Wallace, a co-worker.

Their grimy shirts and forearms testified to preparations going on all over the river-veined Chesapeake peninsula as Isabel wheeled sluggishly in the Atlantic Ocean toward a projected landfall Thursday morning.

Moving northwest at 8 mph, still 520 miles from land, Isabel continued to weaken from its furious peak winds of 160 mph registered over the weekend. Top wind speeds dwindled during the day to 105 mph and then rose to 110 mph Tuesday night. Forecasters said the Category 2 storm could strengthen again as it crosses the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, aimed at North Carolina's Outer Banks.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 18, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Navy ship photo -- An A1 photo caption Wednesday identified a ship heading to sea near Virginia Beach, Va., as the U.S. destroyer Mahan. The ship was the U.S. cruiser Vella Gulf.

A hurricane warning was issued Tuesday night along the North Carolina coast and a hurricane watch extended north to Chincoteague, Va.

"It's still well over 400 miles in diameter. We're talking about an enormous tropical storm," said Lt. Dave Roberts, a Navy meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "We're still very concerned. Specifically, with the area it's approaching, we've seen systems affect these coastal regions in the past with storm surge and heavy flooding."

With the Chesapeake region as the storm's likely second target, work crews here strained all day Tuesday to shore up everything in sight -- lashing boats to moorings, boarding up windows and stowing away countless pallets and other lumber that could become wind-driven projectiles.

"Loaded bullets," said James Keeve, sitting atop a forklift as he motioned toward a pile of wood planks.

A 45-year-old dock foreman for the Pride of Virginia Seafood Co. in the coastal town of Reedville, Keeve moved slowly as he collected the discarded wood. The bay water was placid and the sky an unthreatening blue. But still, Keeve wanted to be done with the day's work.

"I've been in a hurricane in Louisiana," he said. "I know what it can do, brother."

Some 400 miles to the south, North Carolinians with raw memories of 1999's devastating Hurricane Floyd jammed roads leading away from the Outer Banks.

More than 100,000 residents were urged by public safety officials to head inland. "Now is the time to prepare. The course and intensity of this storm may change very quickly," said North Carolina Gov. Michael F. Easley, who declared a state of emergency.

A fleet of U.S. Navy warships headed to sea from their berths in Norfolk, Va. Military aircraft were flown to airfields inland, and about 6,000 military personnel and families living near Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., also were told to evacuate.

The approaching storm also might force postponement of some Miss America Pageant festivities in Atlantic City, N.J. Pageant officials said they might have to delay Friday's Boardwalk parade and even the pageant itself on Saturday.

In this commercial fishing center just west of the Chesapeake, town officials had their own duties to attend to in anticipation of the storm.

"We took down all the town banners this afternoon," town manager Lee Hood Capps said. Battery-operated generators were dropped off at Rappahanock Hospital and at the town's waste-treatment plant, he added.

But Capps said officials had scaled back an earlier plan to open several shelters for families from Smith and Tangier islands, two spits of land exposed to the elements in the center of the bay. From 1,500 to 5,000 island residents had been expected to be brought over by commercial boats starting Tuesday, but after learning of Isabel's reduced wind speeds, officials held the move off for at least a day.

"We can only hope Isabel gets weaker," Capps said.

Self said he would be "perfectly happy" to see a humbled Isabel come ashore meekly when it reaches the Chesapeake. His only concern is the forest of towering oaks and poplars that surround his house. "With all the rain we've got lately, the ground is pretty soggy," he said. "All we need is a stiff wind and I'll be living in a treehouse."

Self and Wallace steered a mattress out of the Callao Buy-Rite while a dozen shoppers wandered the aisles, casually storing up for the days ahead. While one woman admired a shelf piled with fuzzy slippers and perfume, a mother besieged by three whirling children struggled with a shopping cart piled high with water bottles and batteries.

"The only people getting antsy are the folks right on the water," said store owner Juniro Kent. "That wind comes howling in and there's nothing to stand in the way. If they're smart, they're coming inland."

But even if Isabel's winds target the bay towns, Self said, he is ready to ride them out inside the wood-frame home he built by himself. His windows are boarded and his tools are all out.

"We don't run off around here," he said, tousling his boy's hair. "Besides, it's good entertainment."


Times staff writer John Thor-Dahlburg in Miami contributed to this report.

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