Officials Rush to Prepare Coastal N.C. for Ophelia

Thrill-seekers lean into the wind while standing on a Wrightsville Beach, N.C., pier in the heavy rain and high wind brought on by Hurricane Ophelia as it closes in on the state.
Thrill-seekers lean into the wind while standing on a Wrightsville Beach, N.C., pier in the heavy rain and high wind brought on by Hurricane Ophelia as it closes in on the state. (By Logan Mock-bunting -- Getty Images)

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By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 15, 2005

FRISCO, N.C., Sept. 14 -- As slow-moving Hurricane Ophelia hugged the North Carolina coast in a torrential embrace Wednesday, federal, state and local officials were taking no chances of a repeat of the sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina.

Here on Hatteras Island, which was expected to bear the worst of the storm, emergency officials stockpiled enough water and military rations to last 3,000 people for three days. The National Guard was standing by with all-terrain vehicles and four-wheel-drive ambulances. The National Forest Service had 10 chain-saw teams ready to remove fallen trees.

Gov. Mike Easley (D) urged residents of low-lying coastal areas to evacuate. "We're asking them and begging them to please do that because it's going to be hard to get them out later," he said. "The storm surge is going to be higher than projected" Tuesday.

But despite a "mandatory" evacuation order -- which state officials acknowledged was not really mandatory at all -- many residents stayed behind on Hatteras and neighboring islands along the Outer Banks. They parked dozens of cars, pickup trucks and a fire engine on the lawn of the Cape Hatteras Baptist Church in Frisco, not because it is the holiest ground in town, but because it is the highest.

They piled sandbags, stowed boats, bought groceries. And while emergency officials took no chances, some locals did.

"Gosh, that was great. Best way to stretch out your back," said Jim Bagwell, 52, after a 10-minute swim in the pounding, six-foot ocean surf at the Frisco Fishing Pier, just hours before the eye of the hurricane was forecast to come through. In last year's Hurricane Alex, the 200-foot pier itself was carried away.

Cars pulled in and out of the parking lot as residents came to gawk at the high waves and exchange gossip. Bagwell's Labrador retriever, Gator, started to run after him into the surf, then thought better of it.

"They're bringing in truckloads of water. It's paranoia from Katrina," said Murray Clark, 77, a retired trawler captain. "All of us locals are sitting and giggling."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency placed emergency operations centers on 24-hour alert and readied 50 rescue aircraft, spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said.

The agency staged three response teams and stockpiled medical supplies in Raleigh, N.C., and held three more in reserve in Virginia and Maryland in case the storm moved north, a FEMA official said. More than 100 medical personnel were in Raleigh.

While North Carolina had stored enough ice to last two days for 10,000 people, federal authorities staged more food, water and ice in Emporia, Va.; Palmetto and Thomasville, Ga.; Columbia, S.C.; Cumberland, Md.; and Edison, N.J.

North Carolina also activated 200 National Guard members and placed 200 more on standby, a FEMA official said.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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