As Bonnie leaves, a sigh of relief Despite water, wind, huge storm leaves less damage than feared

August 28, 1998|By Jean Marbella and Todd Richissin | Jean Marbella and Todd Richissin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NAGS HEAD, N.C. -- Coastal areas flooded and power outages spread yesterday as Hurricane Bonnie continued its turbulent path across North Carolina before heading out to sea about midnight.

As the storm left the state, it intensified, dumping as much as 12 inches of rain and bearing gusts over 80 mph as it passed over the Outer Banks into the Atlantic.

The National Weather Service upgraded Bonnie from tropical storm to hurricane status at 11 p.m. when winds hit 75 mph on the eastern side of the storm, which was off the coast of Norfolk, Va.

A convoy of utility crews and emergency workers was trailing Bonnie as it moved northward, cleaning up the mess the storm left behind.

More than 2,000 electrical workers from seven Southern states arrived to lend a hand, said Carolina Power & Light spokeswoman Sally Ramey.

North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. ordered about 1,300 National Guard troops to help with safety and cleanup.

In the easternmost part of the state, where numerous sounds, rivers and bays create a nooks-and-crannies coastline, the storm washed out the distinction between land and water in some of the lowest-lying areas.

The storm's rain and shifting winds swelled Pamlico and Albemarle sounds, flooding in one direction, then another.

"As the storm approached, it had east winds in front of it, and that pushed the water in the sounds onto the mainland," said Bob Frederick, a forecaster with the National Weather Service based in Newport, N.C. "But then as it started moving offshore, the winds shifted west, and so that could push the waters over the Outer Banks."

Sporadic tornadoes knocked out power in places such as Manns Harbor, a faded fishing village two bridges west of the Outer Banks.

"We usually come here during hurricanes, because it's the mainland," said Karen Pierce, a Kill Devil Hills resident who was staying at her mother's house in Manns Harbor. "But then there was a tornado that knocked out the electricity. And the water."

A 'drawn-out affair'

The Outer Banks native said the storm was getting old, fast. "It's been a long, drawn-out affair, this hurricane," she said. "Usually they've come and gone by the time this one even got to us."

Manns Harbor, on a thumb-shaped peninsula that is largely wetlands, experienced flooding throughout the day. To its south, the tiny towns that hug the coast of Pamlico Sound were similarly flooded. Parts of Highway 264, which parallels the coast, had to be closed throughout the day.

Places such as Goose Creek Island, where the Pamlico River meets the Pamlico Sound, spent much of the day flooded. Winds of 50 mph pushed two to three feet of water with nowhere to go.

The water began to recede as night fell, although power remained out in some areas.

"Thank the Lord. I was here for both [hurricanes] Bertha and Fran, and this was a lot lighter," said Petty Officer Robert Brady of the U.S. Coast Guard, which has a station across a narrow channel from Goose Creek Island.

Elizabeth City flooded as Bonnie pushed the waters of Albemarle Sound into the Pasquotank River, which in turn spilled over. The rising water yanked a pier in a city park from its mooring.

The flooding continued into the night, with Elizabeth City experiencing the tail end of Bonnie as it moved across the northeast part of North Carolina and the southeastern corner of Virginia in its path toward open seas.

For the most part, flooding was less intense than expected. Bonnie's winds tapered off during the day as it moved across land, so feared storm surges failed to materialize.

"There was very little storm surge. I can't figure it out," said Orrin Pilkey, a coastal biologist with Duke University. "They were expecting surges of 10 feet or so, but that sure didn't happen."

The surges were closer to three to five feet. Even the state's most vulnerable beach, Topsail, to the northeast of Wilmington, survived with some dunes intact, Pilkey said, though some structures were damaged.

'We dodged a bullet'

State officials said that while no precise dollar estimates would be available until tomorrow, damage from Bonnie was easily in the tens of millions of dollars.

Still, that is significantly less destruction than was seen with Hurricane Fran, which killed 24 people and caused $5 billion damage to North Carolina in September 1996.

"You could say we dodged a bullet, but we still got grazed," said Mark Boyer, an emergency worker with New Hanover County.

The evidence was all along Bonnie's path yesterday. Debris littered roadways, storefront windows were shattered, several major routes were closed because of flooding, millions of dollars worth of high-grade tobacco plants were flattened and thousands of people in the southeastern part of the state, where Bonnie made landfall, were spending a second day without power.

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