Officials Rush to Prepare Coastal N.C. for Ophelia

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.

"It's not paranoia to be prepared -- it's simple prudence," said FEMA's acting Director R. David Paulison.

The hardy, or foolhardy, ways of North Carolinians inured to hurricanes clearly frustrated state and local officials. They said that on the Outer Banks, unlike the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, the overwhelming majority of residents have vehicles and can leave if they want to.

"The feedback I'm getting is that a large number of vacationers have evacuated," said Dorothy Toolan, spokeswoman for the Department of Emergency Services in Dare County, which includes Hatteras. "When it comes to the locals, everybody just decides what they're personal level of comfort is."

As Ophelia strengthened from a Category 1 to a Category 2 hurricane with sustained winds of 85 mph, it pushed water out of Pamlico Sound into the Neuse and Pamlico rivers, flooding such coastal communities as Engelhard and Washington.

At 11 p.m., Ophelia's center was about 20 miles south-southeast of Cape Lookout and moving northeast about 7 mph toward Cape Hatteras, about 85 miles away.

While high waves crashed into the ocean side of Hatteras, the water level on the bay side was so low that a half-mile of sand was exposed in places that usually are covered, even at low tide. But when the hurricane's 50-mile-wide eye passes through, everybody here knew, all that water would surge back into Pamlico Sound and smash into the island.

"We know there will be flooding. The barrier islands will be getting hammered one way [as the hurricane comes in] and then another way coming out," Easley said.

"We didn't know whether to call for a voluntary evacuation or a mandatory, so we called for a voluntary," Mayor Betty Medlin of Kure Beach, told Reuters. "The way it's getting here . . ., we probably should have had a mandatory."

"It's just sitting there, which makes the wind beat us and be on us longer," Medlin said.

Residents staying put noted, however, that Ophelia was the seventh hurricane and 15th named storm of 2005 alone, and that it did not pack anything like the punch of Katrina, which was a Category 4 hurricane, or Isabel, which began as a Category 5 hurricane and came ashore as a Category 2, walloping the Outer Banks two years ago.

"If it was going to be as bad as Katrina, I would have left," said Cathy Davidson, 44, who was stocking her house with macaroni and cheese, propane gas and bottled water.

"More locals have left than I thought would leave. I guess they're gun-shy after Katrina," said Bagwell, toweling off after his swim. "You can't live on an island and not realize that if she wants to, Mother Nature can reach out and really touch you."

Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company