The eye of Hurricane Gloria, packing winds up to 130 miles per hour, hit land at the town of Buxton on North Carolina's Outer Banks early today. The storm appeared set on a course that would take it up the coast during the day, and hurricane warnings extended from here all the way north to Plymouth, Mass.
The hurricane made a surprise turn to the east shortly after midnight and skirted mainland North Carolina, which had been braced for a full-scale disaster. An estimated 40,000 people in this area had been evacuated, and more than 200,000 beach dwellers fled their homes in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland yesterday as the storm swept toward the coast.
Minutes before Gloria whirled ashore, her winds sucked so much water out of Buxton harbor that boats were sitting on sand, according to state officials. They said it would be impossible to assess flood and other damage along the fragile barrier islands until daylight.
Weather officials emphasized that it was impossible to predict where the storm would go next, although it appeared headed for Manteo on the delicate barrier beach of Roanoke Island, which for years has suffered serious wind and flood erosion.
Here in New Bern, a small, low-lying river community about 30 miles from the coast, the high winds from Gloria's leading edge downed power lines and pushed up the level of the Neuse River. Despite the heavy rains and hurricane winds of 75 miles per hour that rocked the town, residents and officials throughout this part of Carolina seemed relieved.
"We're almost out of the woods right now. We may have considerable damage, but it's not catastrophic," said Tom Hingon, emergency management coordinator in Carteret County on the state's southeastern coast.
As tides and winds surged dramatically and heavy rain pelted the mid-Atlantic, officials in Ocean City, Md., were going door-to-door last night to ensure that residents obeyed the city's evacuation order. Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes said he would send in the National Guard to protect evacuated areas. Rehoboth Beach and other Sussex County, Del., communities along the coast were also being evacuated.
North Carolina Gov. James G. Martin designated 27 counties as possible disaster areas and Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb declared a state of emergency for his state's Tidewater region. Evacuations were under way in the low-lying areas of Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Portsmouth.
Farther up the coast, New York City officials shut down the twin 110-story towers of the World Trade Center and in Atlantic City, N.J., casinos halted gambling. Delaware and New Jersey also declared states of emergency.
Neil Frank, director of the National Hurricane Center near Miami, described Gloria as "a strong and dangerous storm." His colleague, meteorologist Chris Velden, added, "Predicting what's in store for the North and Northeast is the dilemma we face."
Robert E. Muller, chief meteorologist at the National Weather Service Forecasting Center at the Raleigh-Durham Airport, said, "If this storm continues on this track, we're looking at another Hazel." The 1954 hurricane killed 95 people with a 17-foot tidal surge and 115 mph winds along the North Carolina coast.
What worried forecasters most about Gloria was its size and the extent of its strongest winds. The storm covered a region of the Atlantic the size of the Gulf of Mexico. Its hurricane-force winds -- in excess of 75 mph -- extend at least 150 miles from the center of the storm on the east and northeast side, unusually large for a hurricane.
"On Wednesday, the storm had a 10-mile-wide eye," Frank said. "Today, the eye has spread out to about 25 miles, which means the arms of the strongest wind spiraling out of that eye are spread out, too."
Forecasters in Miami said it appeared that the hurricane would not head too far inland. The storm seemed likely to skirt the mid-Atlantic coast or move north-northeast over the ocean again.
If Gloria's center pulls back offshore, it could maintain strength and increase in speed, raising the threat to Long Island and New England, the forecasters said.
Emergency preparations were under way from the Carolinas to Maine. People stocked up on food, flashlights, batteries, candles and plywood. Homeowners boarded and sandbagged their houses, boaters headed to safe harbors and hundreds hauled their vessels into dry dock.
Along the Outer Banks, schools and businesses were closed and as many as 65,000 people were evacuated from the banks and nearby Carteret County to the mainland.
"The Outer Banks is the most fragile piece of real estate there is," Atlantic Beach Police Chief C.W. Pelletier said. "I'd much rather evacuate and make a mistake and not evacuate and have 3,000 or 4,000 people drown."
At the 114-year-old Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, waves 8 to 12 feet high last night were breaking against sandbags surrounding the landmark.
In Virginia, Robb placed the National Guard on a state of readiness and parts of the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area and Gloucester County were evacuated.
Virginia Beach police said the main roads leading out of the city were jammed and that grocery store and gasoline station owners reported fights between people vying for dwindling food and gasoline supplies.
"It was like the old gasoline shortage days," Sgt. Dan H. Kappers said. "We've had one report of two people pulling in line at a gas station at the same time and duking it out right there" by the pumps.
Along the Norfolk waterfront, the Navy continued moving airplanes, warships and submarines out of the hurricane's reach. Some aircraft flew as far as San Diego, Calif., to escape the storm.
Other planes went to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, to wait out Gloria.
Navy warships will stand about 100 miles off the Virginia coast to ride out the potentially damaging winds headed northward.
Evacuations of Tangier and Chincoteague islands began yesterday at about the same time some 700 residents of Smith Island, in the southernmost part of Chesapeake Bay, were being helped off the island by state police and Coast Guard vessels.