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Bonnie Forces Half Million To Evacuate Carolina Coast

By Sue Anne Pressley
The Washington Post
Morehead city, N.C.

Hurricane Bonnie bore down on the Carolinas coast Tuesday, forcing authorities to order the evacuation of nearly half-a-million people from North Carolina's Outer Banks and South Carolina's northernmost coastal counties, and intensifying fears that there will be no escaping the big, dangerous storm.

The hurricane, packing sustained winds of 115 mph, was expected to hit land somewhere in the vicinity of this coastal town of 7,500 by late morning Wednesday, according to specialists at the National Hurricane Center near Miami. Because of its size and range, however - and its unpredictability - they warned it could affect coastal communities from northern South Carolina well into Virginia.

Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore declared a state of emergency, giving local officials in the Tidewater area authority to order people out of their homes if danger becomes imminent. Although no evacuations were ordered immediately, city officials in Virginia Beach, just north of the North Carolina border, urged residents in vulnerable areas - including those in mobile homes and beachfront resorts - to get out of the way.

After two days of stalling in the Atlantic Ocean near the Bahamas, Bonnie began moving in earnest toward the U.S. mainland at a 16-mph clip, prompting forecasters to advance the time of expected landfall - initially Wednesday evening - but also allowing them to better pinpoint its destination along the middle of the North Carolina coastline.

As a Category 3 storm, with winds of 111-130 mph, Bonnie is capable of causing extensive damage, they cautioned. With hurricane-force winds (exceeding 75 mph) extending 145 miles from its center, it is considered a very large storm, and forecasters said the target area could still be feeling its effects Wednesday night.

"This is a major Category 3 hurricane and a big storm, and those two things make it very dangerous," said meteorologist Jeremy Pennington of the National Hurricane Center. "There is the potential for loss of life, but the key is to make sure everyone knows ahead of time. A hurricane should not result in any deaths if individuals know what is going on."

The decisive announcements from forecasters, after days of erratic behavior on Bonnie's part, brought a new urgency to emergency preparations. Both Hurricane Bertha, in July 1996, and Hurricane Fran, two months later, thrashed this section of the coast.

Emergency officials ordered the 250,000 residents and vacationers in North Carolina's Outer Banks, a vulnerable area of barrier islands, to leave before the roads wash out and the waterways became too choppy to navigate. A fire truck made its way from street to street Tuesday night in Nags Head, on the Outer Banks 100 miles northeast of here, with a siren wailing and a loudspeaker blaring warnings to leave, citing the evacuation orders.

Waves of 8-to-10 feet along the Outer Banks were reported.

In South Carolina, Gov. David Beasley (R) ordered the evacuation of about 220,000 people in coastal Georgetown and Horry counties, east of U.S. 17, including the popular Myrtle Beach area, although it seemed likely they would escape the brunt of the hurricane. Citing the "very serious storm," Beasley urged residents living farther inland in manufactured housing or in flood-prone areas to flee.

Hurricane warnings were in effect from Murrells Inlet, S.C., to Chincoteague, Va., while a less serious hurricane watch extended as far south as Savannah, Ga., and as far north as Cape Henlopen, Del.

"There is a possibility that Bonnie may still curve more eastward and just miss the Outer Banks," Pennington said. "But even if the center does not come across, they and other places will still get those hurricane-force winds."

Westbound roads from North Carolina beaches rapidly became clogged with trucks hauling small boats to safety and carloads of disgruntled vacationers, their backseats piled with clothing and luggage. A gray sky spat out buckets of rain, making driving hazardous.

"I'm going home," said David Watlington of Yanceyville, N.C., who had been vacationing at Topsail Beach, also in the target area. "I know when to leave."

What Bonnie would do after it reached shore was still uncertain, but forecasters were hoping that by Thursday morning, it would be dissipating in the Atlantic Ocean.

"We think this storm will come up through North Carolina and once it comes out the North Carolina-Virginia border, it will reenter the Atlantic and go more north and northeast," Pennington said. "We anticipate it missing most of the East Coast. But none of these things are set in stone."

That was good news to residents farther north, but here, people steeled themselves for a bad time. Forecasters predicted the tropical-storm force winds - exceeding 39 mph - set for Tuesday night would gain in force as morning dawned.

The Outer Banks resembled a series of ghost towns except for merchants and some homeowners who were securing their property and moving outdoor furniture, potted plants and other objects that would become potentially lethal missiles in hurricane-force winds. Workers hastened to tape windows and board expanses of glass.