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North Carolina Town Hit Hard Last Year by Isabel Is Luckier This Time

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page A13

WILLIAMSTON, N.C., Aug. 14 -- This little coastal Carolina town, buffeted by Hurricane Isabel a year ago, was spared Saturday when Hurricane Charley lost power after smacking into South Carolina and weakening to a tropical storm.

Charley huffed and puffed but blew down almost nothing. But its winds were frightening enough to put a scare into residents and vacationers from as far away as Illinois, New Jersey and the District of Columbia. They came here to play in the nearby Atlantic and bask in the sun.

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As the wind howled and the rain fell in a hard slant, Brian and Shari Beender of Germantown Hills, Ill., debated whether they should sleep here for the night or attempt a perilous drive to a rented home in Nags Head, where the tropical storm was bearing down.

"We're going," Shari, 37, decided.

"No, we're not," Brian, 41, replied. "We're staying."

The Beenders were upset because the storm separated them from other family members during their drive south. They were following Brian's brother, who raced along U.S. 64 in a Ford Expedition, pulling a trailer through the wind and rain.

"I wasn't going to speed through that stuff," Brian said, nervously watching the wind.

The Beenders were like hundreds of tourists. Hotel managers, store clerks and police officers said they watched visitors form a wagon train of cars as they left the islands that stretch along Pamlico Sound.

"I've never been to the East Coast," Shari said. "I've never seen a hurricane. We know people who come here every year. They talk about it. They've never had bad weather. But the first time we decide to come, we get this."

She was referring to the ruckus outside, where the wind swirled around shoppers as they carried emergency groceries to their cars. The shoppers knew what the Beenders did not: North Carolina had dodged a bullet. The storm could have been far worse, like the hurricane last September.

Hurricane Isabel tore an island in two when it slammed into the Outer Banks. Isabel ripped the picturesque town of Edenton apart, knocking down trees and power lines. The storm raised the waters of the Albemarle Sound and sent waves crashing into houses, where families and children trembled. The Food Lion where the Beenders stood was left without electricity for days after Isabel crippled nearly every city in coastal North Carolina.

Ellen McCormick, 43, of Boonton, N.J., heard the hurricane forecast and fled the beach town of Duck with her family. She sat in the lobby of a Hampton Inn in Williamston with her daughter, Lizzy, 12, watching a television news report about the dangerous weather.

"This stinks," McCormick said.

"It's boring," Lizzy added. "You're stuck in a small room with nothing to do."

As she watched the hotel's windows shake, McCormick called the storm unsettling but not as bad as she thought it would be. "Maybe the roads can get washed out. People can lose their houses. It might flood and we'll have to kayak back to the house."

Three miles away, at the grocery store, Shari Beender won the debate. The winds had died down, and the Beenders were headed to Nags Head.

Paul Nichols, an assistant manager at the Food Lion, tried to offer an observation: "I think this is the eye of the storm."

The Beenders left. They wanted to rendezvous with other family members, and Shari was convinced that they could make it.

Within 10 minutes, a slight breeze started pushing through the shrubs, then it picked up and the rains resumed. Before long, the weather was as bad as it had been earlier in the day, and the roads were as dangerous.


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