In this gracious seaside city, there is one name above all others that still strikes fear and dread: Hugo, the 1989 hurricane that killed 21 people in the Carolinas and caused more than $10 billion in damage. Today, as a weaker Hurricane Dennis skirted the shore, kicking up winds and slinging rain, residents and officials were nervous, but grateful that they would likely be spared another disaster.
For one thing, Dennis is obviously no Hugo. It remained a moderate Category 2 storm today, with winds of 105 mph, certainly nothing to dismiss, but Hugo was a historic Category 4, packing a much more powerful--and memorable--135-mph wallop.
What's more, forecasters continued to predict that Dennis, which was on a northeasterly course this evening, could very well miss landfall entirely, making that the happiest piece of news for the Carolinas since the storm began its tease of the southeastern coast late last week.
"But these things are tricky," cautioned Howard Friedman, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "A lot depends on the timing."
Dennis, which caused forecasters to post a tropical storm warning from the northern tip of Hatteras Island off North Carolina north to Chincoteague, Va., did manage to wreck vacations up and down the Carolina coasts today. There were glowering gray skies, choppy waves and "No Swimming" signs everywhere from Folly Beach near here to Cape Hatteras, N.C. Its approach also forced evacuations from Topsail Beach, N.C., and from Ocracoke Island, one of the more remote areas, accessible only by ferry, on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Residents also were ordered to leave Hatteras Island.
"Our issue is life-safety first," said David Summers of the New Hanover County emergency management office in Wilmington, N.C., as he announced evacuations of some of that area's barrier islands.
Dennis's future--and its impact on the coast--appeared today to depend on a trough of lower pressure in the upper atmosphere to the north of the hurricane.
"The storm would be affected by the southwesterly flow, then the storm would move to the northeast," Friedman said. "As long as the trough has control, the storm will stay off the coast, in the open Atlantic. If the trough pulls up, the storm will be left behind."
At 9 p.m. EDT, Dennis was centered about 150 miles south of Wilmington, N.C. It was moving at a faster 13-mph pace.
A hurricane warning, meaning a hurricane is likely within the next 36 hours, was posted from Little River Inlet, on the border between the Carolinas, to Oregon Inlet just north of Hatteras Island. Tropical-storm warnings, meaning winds of 39 to 74 mph are likely, covered the area north of Savannah, Ga., to Cape Hatteras because of the storm's proximity to the shore and the possibility its outer reaches would affect land. But Dennis's weakest side, thankfully, was its west side, which lessened its impact on the coast for now.
"That doesn't mean the outer rain band won't cause large swells and high waves, because it will," Friedman said. "But the west side of the storm is a little bit ragged. It doesn't look like the classic hurricane wrapped tight."
Forecasters said hurricane-force winds could buffet Cape Fear, just south of Wilmington, N.C., by Monday morning.
Residents of the northern Bahamas today were repairing the mostly minor damage caused by a near-direct hit by Dennis and its then-115-mph winds early Saturday, according to wire service reports. Hotel workers at Great Abaco reported that roof shingles were missing and fallen coconut trees were everywhere, but there apparently were no deaths or serious injuries.
Here in Charleston, where the 10th anniversary of Hugo is approaching on Sept. 21, residents and officials were taking no chances, even though they seemed assured of missing the brunt of the storm. No evacuations had been ordered. But powerful riptides created by the hurricane made even knee-deep water treacherous.
"It is looking a lot more promising for us," said Cathy Haynes of the Charleston County emergency preparedness department. "We're still going to experience some winds, but the duration won't be for so long a time and the strength of the winds doesn't look as bad--we're looking at more between 45 and 60 mph instead of the sustained 60 mph we had expected."
As she worked today, Haynes could not help recalling her most vivid memory of Hugo, which struck just before midnight, shearing trees, tossing houses about like toys, shattering windows and snapping electrical lines.
"The first thing that pops to mind whenever anybody brings up Hugo is that when the eye was making landfall, the roof of our emergency preparedness office was ripped off as we were working there," she said. "We were hiding under the tables while it rained and blew down on us. We were lucky to get out alive."