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Suspense, Silence, Then the Roar Hits S. Carolina Resort Town

August 15, 2004|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — At midmorning on Ocean Boulevard, the carnival music had stilled and the Log Flume was not taking customers. There was a strange silence Saturday in this resort town, after 150,000 tourists and 30,000 natives evacuated in advance of Hurricane Charley.

Then Charley swept in with winds that reached 75 mph. It peeled large panels of drywall off the side of the Sailfish resort complex, scattering damp candy-pink clumps of insulation across a three-block radius. Palm trees began to be ripped apart. Lounge chairs, blown off poolside terraces, landed face-down in main arteries.

"It's like being in a wind tunnel," yelled Pattie Manos-Gross, 44, as she stood outside the lobby of her hotel, clothes plastered against her body. A pen flew past her, bumped along the ground for a while, and kept rolling until it was out of sight.

After ravaging Florida with wind speeds that reached 145 mph, Charley did little damage in South Carolina, causing minor flooding and power outages. By the time the storm crossed the border into North Carolina, wind speeds had dropped further and Charley was downgraded to a tropical storm. Reaching Virginia, it brought little more than heavy rain.

For three hours, though, it held Myrtle Beach in suspense. Gov. Mark Sanford had sent an abrupt, unambiguous message at 6 p.m. Friday night, when he ordered a mandatory evacuation of oceanfront property. Police cars rolled up and down the boulevard with megaphones, ordering drinkers out of bars and vacationers out of their stupor.

Charley passed directly over Myrtle Beach. For a few minutes, city residents looked up to the dry wind and light sky of the hurricane's eye.

"All of a sudden the sun came out," said Billy Pournaras, 30. "I walked outside. Then you hear this roar. I watched the siding peeled off my house. I heard trees snapping."

By early afternoon, business owners were sweeping their properties and families were walking down the beach. Vendors were selling soft-serve and bikinis with the Confederate flag. John Dashkavich and Ellen Meehan, who live in Myrtle Beach, enjoyed a boardwalk empty of the tourists who dominate it from March through August.

A former Wall Street executive, Dashkavich, 53, sang the praises of his new home, a real-life Margaritaville where, he said, "We don't have pent-up anxieties." Another transplant, Karen Stephenson, 47, from Pennsylvania, described her new neighbors as the kind of people who "go to church in shorts and a halter top."

Meanwhile, the customers who had been routed the night before began flooding back into Marvin's, a beachfront bar with a NASCAR theme. The bar's owner showed little interest in the latest hurricane, having drunk his way through several of them, but he suspected it would be a topic among customers.

"They all want to tell some story," said Marvin McHone. " 'Oh, I did this,' or 'I survived that.' Most of them are exaggerating."

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