Arthur’s hit ‘minimal,’ McCrory says, but flooding and power outages are still issues

akenney@newsobserver.com ablythe@newsobserver.com efrederick@newsobserver.comJuly 3, 2014 

  • Dangerous rip currents

    WHAT IS A RIP CURRENT?

    A rip current is a channel of water that flows out into the ocean from shore. The motion and waves of the ocean are constantly changing the sand on the bottom. Water going back out to sea takes the shortest path and sometimes all that water flows into a narrow area, like a depression between two sand bars, creating a rip current that can pull swimmers away from shore. Rip currents can be anywhere from about the length of a car to over half a football field, said Monty Reed, lifeguard coordinator for North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

    IS IT THE SAME AS AN UNDERTOW?

    It is not an undertow. A rip current will pull swimmers out to sea, but won’t pull them under, Reed said. The currents are temporary and follow the dips and rises of the ocean floor instead of a constant flow. That’s why the term “rip tide” is a misnomer, because tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon.

    WHAT IF YOU GET CAUGHT BY A RIP CURRENT?

    If you have a boogie board or other flotation device, hold on, Reed said. The current won’t pull you under. “People drown from fear and panic. They don’t know what to do. They will dump their boogie boards and go under,” Reed said. Instead, ride it out. The water will eventually stop pulling out. Or, swim parallel to shore to get out of the rip current. But don’t swim against it. Some rip currents flow at 8 feet per second, which is faster than Olympic swimmers.

    IS IT SAFE TO SWIM ONCE ARTHUR PASSES?

    Friday could be a dangerous day at the beach even with Hurricane Arthur moving away. The churning waves from the storm will create new sandbars and depressions, causing rip currents to pop up suddenly, Reed said. Lifeguards are bracing for a busy day as the weather will be sunny and the Fourth of July beckons people to take day trips.

    HOW CAN I STAY SAFE?

    Reed said it is always best to swim near a lifeguard stand. Also, talk to lifeguards, who can tell you how bad conditions are before you get in the water. And listen to their advice. Reed is working Friday and plans to tell swimmers not to get in above their knees or waist, depending on the conditions. “Stay close to shore, where you can manage yourself in the waves, and that will keep everyone safe,” Reed said.

    Associated Press

— North Carolina avoided major damage from Hurricane Arthur, Gov. Pat McCrory said Friday morning, and conditions up and down the coast are improving — but flooding and about 44,000 power outages still afflict an area that usually has one of its best days on the Fourth of July.

Officials are assessing the aftermath, which includes some beach erosion, storm surge damage on the sound side of the Outer Banks, water and possible pavement damage on sections of N.C. 12, and flooding in Manteo.

At 9 a.m., the eye of Arthur was about 130 miles east of Norfolk, Va., speeding northeast into the Atlantic at 21 mph. Top sustained winds had fallen from 100 to 90 mph, making Arthur a Category 1 storm again. By 11 a.m., all hurricane warnings for North Carolina had expired or been canceled.

At a news conference at 9:30 a.m., McCrory said there had been no reports of serious injuries. “That puts a smile on all our faces,” he said.

About 23,000 customers of electricity co-ops in North Carolina had no power at 9:15 a.m., according to North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives. The largest number are in the central coastal areas and the barrier islands. Crews are working to restore power.

To the south, Duke Energy reported about 15,000 power outages at 9 a.m., down from more than 22,000 before sunrise. Most of them were in Carteret County, where more than 11,000 outages were reported. Roughly 1,500 were reported in Craven County and nearly 1,000 in New Hanover.

Wind on the back side of the storm pushed water from Pamlico Sound eastward onto the Outer Banks, although it was receding. The peak storm surge was estimated at 2 to 4 feet.

McCrory said that the “minimal damage” included some beach erosion and debris from artificial reefs, minor damage to coastal homes and docks, and some downed trees inland.

But the extent of damage won’t be clear until it is assessed through the day. State Department of Transportation webcam images showed water and sand on the Outer Banks’ fragile traffic artery, N.C. 12, but the road was reasonably intact, if not yet easily passable, in sections north and south of Hatteras Village and to the north at Rodanthe. Soundside flooding was making some sections difficult to reach for assessment, the DOT said, though officials expressed optimism repairs would be complete by Saturday.

Access to Dare County south of Oregon Inlet was being restricted Friday morning until safety checks are made, but areas north of the inlet are open, the Dare County Emergency Management office said. The Bonner Bridge remains closed.

McCrory said in his Friday morning press conference that the state’s goal was to have the Bonner Bridge and N.C. 12 open by late Saturday, but Oregon Inlet was still too turbulent for a sonar boat crew to evaluate the bridge’s footings.

The Southport-Fort Fisher ferry has resumed running on a full schedule, the DOT said Friday morning, but other service had not yet been restored.

Flooding was reported in downtown Manteo, on Roanoke Island. The causeway between Manteo and Nags Head on the Outer Banks was closed.

McCrory also said it was tough to get damage reports from Ocracoke Island after a “communication failure.”

Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry said Friday his team is sending a generator and communication devices by ferry to Ocracoke Island after infrastructure there went offline. Otherwise, Sprayberry said National Guard units and most county emergency operation centers were standing down, though the state emergency center would remain open until the last county facility closed.

In Morehead City, damage was light, although power was out for more than five hours, until about 4 a.m.

Rainfall was moderately heavy in some areas, though. Some parts of Brunswick, New Hanover and Onslow counties got more than four inches, according to the National Weather Service.

The American Red Cross reported Friday it was closing all of its shelters along the state’s coast. “The Red Cross will work to determine where help is needed and begin mobile feeding, distribution of relief supplies, and emotional support to those affected by the storm,” said Barry Porter, Chief Executive for central and eastern North Carolina in a news release.

Meanwhile, conditions were improving rapidly to the west and south. The outer bands of Arthur’s rain were east of I-95 at 7:30 a.m., and on the southern coast, the sun was out in Brunswick and New Hanover counties and up the shore on the Crystal Coast. By noon, there was no precipitation in any part of North Carolina.

Rip currents will remain an issue all along the coast through the weekend, the weather service said, and swimmers should be cautious.

Sunny and cooler weather is forecast for all of eastern North Carolina for the weekend.

The National Hurricane Center said Arthur is the earliest hurricane to hit North Carolina since records began in 1851. The previous record was July 11, 1901.

Arthur’s approach

Arthur made its first landfall at 11:15 p.m. Thursday at Shackleford Banks near Cape Lookout as a Category 2 storm, pushing waves of three to five feet onto the barrier islands and across Pamlico Sound.

At the height of the storm, hurricane-force winds extended as much as 35 miles inland, and much of the coast was at risk of storm-surge flooding.

While early predictions had suggested that Arthur would give the state only a glancing blow, its track shifted to the west just as it approached, with the storm center passing through Pamlico Sound early this morning. Westward wind, moving counter-clockwise on the back side of the storm after the center passed, whipped water back onto the sound side of the Outer Banks.

As the storm tracked more to the west, Gov. Pat McCrory warned Thursday evening about a heightened risk of inland flooding.

“We did not expect this western movement four or five hours ago,” McCrory told reporters in Raleigh. “Now we have concerns about people inland who may be impacted by potential flooding of rivers going over their banks.”

McCrory also said 11 counties had declared a state of emergency and 14 shelters were open.

McCrory said he had heard “some positive things” about southern portions of North Carolina’s coast, as the hurricane passed offshore during low tide, but he warned people across the entire coastal area to exercise caution. He also thanked emergency responders who have been preparing for the storm.

Arthur narrowly missed Wilmington at 8 p.m. Thursday. In Morehead City, the storm’s eye loomed about 40 miles south at 10 p.m., but the weather had been surprisingly calm until about 9:30. Wind and rain had been sporadic all day, but the wind increased dramatically late Thursday, with trees dancing and a large trash bin taking flight. Many restaurants and businesses had closed early.

By 5 a.m. Friday, Arthur’s center had traversed Pamlico Sound and made a quick second landfall on the sound side of the northern Outer Banks near the Pea Island wildlife refuge, from the southwest, and then passed back into the ocean.

Advance advisories have been posted all the way into eastern Canada, but Arthur is expected to weaken and become a post-tropical system before it gets there.

There also were sporadic tornado warnings inland as Arthur’s arms sprawled across the eastern half of the state, sending bands of stormy weather west and north. A tornado was confirmed Thursday in Duplin County and a funnel cloud was spotted near Elm City.

Some left, some stayed

The evacuation orders had prompted Outer Banks visitors to weigh the time and money invested in their vacations against the worrisome wind-speed predictions.

“We don’t know anything about hurricanes — I mean we’re from Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” said Beth Berger, 46, who abandoned a weeklong house rental on Hatteras Island.

In the Outer Banks, evacuation efforts ended Thursday with the shutdown of Pamlico Sound ferries. Business owners on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands feared that Arthur would be the worst of the recent years’ setbacks.

For Outer Banks residents, the hurricane’s path across Pamlico Sound brought dread and deja vu.

“This is a badly needed weekend for the businesses here. For three straight years, we’ve lost the entire fall season,” said Carol Dawson, who owns two motels and a store at the Hatteras Island village of Buxton.

In recent years, hurricanes Irene and Sandy and problems with Bonner Bridge have cut off N.C. 12, the mainland link to Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.

The presence of 100-mph winds whipping water through the sound meant that both the channel routes of the Pamlico Sound ferry boats and low-lying N.C. 12 to Hatteras could be washed away.

Anticipating damage, the state government parked an array of heavy equipment along the coast and prepared a sonar boat to examine the aging Bonner Bridge after the storm.

Countless tourism dollars probably ride on the results of that check and on early ferry runs and power-line repairs.

An early hurricane

The coast hasn’t seen such an early hurricane in recent history.

“Happening in early July, at the heart of the season, that could be devastating economically,” said Scott Leggat, vice president of Seaside Vacations and a longtime Hatteras resident.

“It’s a weird hurricane,” said Lee Gallagher, the bartender at Backstreet Pub in Beaufort, the seat of Carteret County, not far from the storm’s expected landfall. “Usually we have more warning, hearing about it as it rises up. … This time it was sudden.”

Mixed responses

State and federal authorities talked up the storm’s threat beforehand, deploying hundreds of workers and a small National Guard force to help victims of the storm and to clean up its aftermath.

Arthur also brought several evacuations around the coast, particularly Pamlico Sound – to mixed results, as always.

Ocracoke Island saw up to 4,300 people, roughly half its summertime population, depart by ferry on Wednesday and Thursday. The voluntary evacuation selected by Hyde County commissioners made it easier for some people to stay.

“It’s very, very busy,” said Tommy Hutcherson, whose family owns the Ocracoke Variety Store. “There’s a lot of people still on the island.”

Hatteras Island, under mandatory evacuation, also saw droves depart. Beth Berger and her husband, the Wisconsin visitors, pulled their truck into steady traffic along N.C. 12 at 4 a.m. Thursday.

“This morning, you couldn’t have made a left-hand turn onto N.C. 12,” said Leggat.