330,000 in N.C. flee hurricane Powerful Bonnie is expected to hit the coast today

Big as Texas, 115-mph winds

Warnings stretch from S. Carolina to Chincoteague, Va.

August 26, 1998|By Jean Marbella and Todd Richissin | Jean Marbella and Todd Richissin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DUCK, N.C. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — DUCK, N.C. -- As Hurricane Bonnie bore down on North Carolina's Outer Banks for an expected landfall today, some 330,000 vacationers and residents evacuated the thin necklace of islands in a grim, bumper-to-bumper procession toward safer ground.

As night fell, Bonnie was about the size of Texas and packing 115-mph winds -- the same strength that blew apart so much of coastal North Carolina only two years ago.

The threat was enough to darken the streets of the barrier island towns. A few restaurants and gas stations remained open, but many were boarded up, windows taped in anticipation of high winds.

In Duck, Fishbones was one of the few restaurants to remain open last night -- it's sign said, "Hurricane, shmurricane. Open."

Owner John Kotch said he served about 70 people last night -- mostly locals -- substantially down from the 200 to 250 he averages on a summer night.

Eating a late-night dinner while watching the Weather Channel, Kotch still hoped the storm would pass by. "It could veer off, make a right turn and miss us, or it could go inland," he said as he closed the restaurant about 10 p.m.

It was anybody's guess where the storm would hit.

"This storm is huge, and it's flip-flopping around," said Cathy Henry, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Emergency Management Department.

On Monday, Bonnie's path was so slow and wobbly that forecasters were unsure when or even whether it might hit land.

But by last night, the storm was centered about 215 miles south of Cape Lookout, N.C., and was pushing toward the northwest at 14 mph -- nearly three times faster than a day earlier.

The entire coast prepared yesterday for what could be devastating effects of the season's first hurricane.

Officials said the evacuation, which was mandatory in most North Carolina coastal communities and in two South Carolina counties, proceeded without any reported problems, but traffic was heavy throughout the day.

The northbound lanes of Highway 158, which leads from the Outer Banks toward Virginia, became jammed at times as thousands of cars streamed northward, most carrying evidence of vacations shortened by Bonnie. Some trailed boats, others had kayaks and boogie boards strapped to their roofs.

Almost all carried parents and children with long faces -- facing even longer car trips back home.

"I wanted to stay," said a pouting Adam Bostwick, 11, of Germantown, Md., as his family joined the line of vehicles leaving the Outer Banks.

But with Hurricane Felix of 1993 fresh in his mother's mind, the family decided to leave Duck halfway through their vacation.

"That time, the house was completely lost," said Kiki Bostwick. She recalled how the family fled a beach house in Sandbridge, Va., in 1993 and saw footage of the house on a TV newscast that night caving in under Felix's wrath.

Hurricane warnings were posted from Chincoteague, Va., to Cape Romain, S.C. Swimming was banned at beaches as far north as New York's Long Island. Four New Jersey lifeguards had to be rescued yesterday after being overpowered by rough surf at Point Pleasant Beach.

About 60 Navy ships at Norfolk, Va., were instructed to leave port and ride out the storm 300 miles at sea. Other ships were being moved to inland waterways.

At Pope Air Force Base, N.C., "every plane that is flyable is leaving," said Lt. Tisha McGarry, a spokeswoman. Fighter jets also were leaving Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina.

Passenger ferries to North Carolina's Outer Banks were shut down, 85 shelters were opened and utility crews geared up to repair damage.

Carolina Power and Light, the local utility, called out extra crews and stationed them at a fairgrounds in Raleigh, N.C., so they could be dispatched quickly to storm-damaged areas, a utility spokeswoman said.

North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. declared a state of emergency yesterday afternoon, and counties along the coast set up shelters for residents forced to leave their homes. Wrightsville Beach, normally packed at this time of year with people trying for that last bit of summer tan, was all but deserted by last night.

Some residents refused to leave.

"We call it a mandatory evacuation, but that's more strong words than anything," said Sam Burgess, spokesman for the New Hanover Emergency Operations Center. "We can't hold a gun to their heads. If they won't go, we try to shake them up a little emotionally by asking them who's their next of kin. Sometimes that's better than a gun."

Kim Levengood, 37, and Susan Fred, 35, decided to wait for the start of the storm in the Barbary Coast, a Wilmington down-home bar where a 180-pound English mastiff named Hercules looks as in place as the beer.

"Here we go one more time -- at least," Levengood said. "But we're strong people. We can take it."

Thousands of others heeded the warnings, flooding the highways and doing what they could to protect their property.

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