As the fury of Hurricane Floyd began to fray across the Carolina coast, the once-ferocious storm's eyewall slammed into Wilmington at 2 a.m. today with sustained winds of 90 mph.
Parked cars wobbled precariously and transformers fell, resulting in widespread power outages. Chunks of roofs flaked off buildings, garbage cans rolled across flooded roads, and residents of barrier islands reported dozens of downed trees. A persistent rumble, less than thunder but far more frightening, was the only sound that could be heard over the rain.
"It's a scary feeling," said Larry Head, of Wrightsville Beach. "I see trees down all over. I got down on my knees a few minutes ago and prayed."
After the eye glanced over Wilmington, forecasters said, it likely would skirt the coast before moving over land at Morehead City and skimming over water again before hitting Virginia Beach.
Coastal towns suffered heavy flooding, collapsing streets and overflowing creeks as Floyd dumped 10 inches of rain here and more in other areas.
"The water doesn't have anywhere else to go," said Mayor Betty Medlin of Kure Beach, the southernmost town on the peninsula separating the Cape Fear River from the Atlantic. She and other local officials reported flood waters of up to two feet. A storm surge between four and eight feet higher than the usual tide was forecast to swamp barrier islands.
Already, the long-awaited storm had created mass disruption along the eastern seaboard, spawning what Vice President Gore on Wednesday called "the largest peacetime evacuation in any disaster in the history of the United States."
An estimated 800,000 residents of coastal South Carolina and 500,000 Georgia residents joined 1.7 million Floridians who were under evacuation orders. While Florida and Georgia avoided the brunt of the storm, governors in the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland declared states of emergency and alerted National Guard troops. Air and train travel were interrupted all over the Southeast, and interstates in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas were clogged with thousands of panicked residents who had decided this was one storm they had better not ride out.
At least Floyd was not quite the behemoth it had been as it ravaged the Bahamas on Tuesday -- leaving one person dead and reports of severe damage -- and raked large stretches of the Florida coast. At its most powerful, the storm packed 155 mph winds, making it a borderline Category 5 storm, the deadliest of all, but early today it was rated a Category 2.
"The flooding is pretty amazing," said David Paynter, spokesman for New Hanover County, whose largest city is Wilmington. "It's much more dramatic than Fran or anything else we've seen in the last few years." That was an extraordinary statement for a region that has been hit by five hurricanes in four years.
As night fell in Wilmington Wednesday, the sky's eerie gray broth transformed into a terrifying, swirling black cream. Pounding sheets of rain alternated with discomfiting calm. At times, it felt too peaceful. After midnight, with solid waves of rain drenching the area, the air was thickly tropical; everything felt wet.
This coastal city's streets began flooding by 9 p.m., after a drought-quenching three inches of rain fell in less than two hours. A pier on the Atlantic side of the peninsula between the Cape Fear River and the ocean collapsed into the sea, Floyd's first major victim here. Creeks overflowed ahead of Floyd's full frontal attack; an alligator was swept onto one Wilmington street when a creek spilled over its banks.
Shortly before 10 p.m., New Hanover County announced a mandatory curfew; violators were warned they faced not a citation, but arrest and imprisonment. Around 11 p.m., 60 to 70 mph gusts were lashing Wilmington.
From Savannah, Ga., to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and beyond, there were ghost towns. Businesses boarded up their windows, and gas stations turned off their pumps. Hardware stores sold their final flashlights, then locked their doors. No one was on the darkened streets as Floyd's wind and rain lashed the shore, tossing huge waves onto the jetties on South Carolina's barrier islands facing the Atlantic.
At 1 a.m., about 250,000 Carolinians were reported to be without electricity. Television news anchors, simulcasting on radio, calmed residents with middle-of-the-night conversations ranging from damage reports to discussions of faith.
Despite more than five inches of rain and widespread reports of downed trees and branches, Charleston, S.C., residents telephoning local radio stations reported only moderate damage and little flooding by 9 p.m. Wednesday. Sensing that the storm was abating, callers began inquiring after loved ones living further up the coast.
In Myrtle Beach, emergency officials enacted a 3 p.m. curfew, allowing no one else to enter or leave the area. This morning, after 15 inches of rain, authorities reported severe flooding.
In tiny Wrightsville Beach, N.C., houses were battened down for the fifth hurricane since 1996, and their owners headed to shelters.
"You get everything out of the yard, you board and tape the windows," said Bernice Sanders, who lives four miles from the ocean in Wrightsville Beach. "And then you have to leave everything and wonder if you're ever going to see it again."
At Wilmington's Trask Middle School, more than 270 people lined the hallways, resting, watching portable televisions, playing chess and trading Pokemon cards.
Late Wednesday, a wave of new refugees streamed into the shelter, which was already over its capacity. These were Wilmington's newest residents, recent immigrants from Central America. Red Cross shelter director Scott Mills opened a new wing of the building. No one would be turned away.
But despite the apparent calm inside the shelters, fear of Floyd's fury was never far from the surface. "When we left the house today, my husband said, `Where do you want to move after this levels our house?' " said Mary Grace White, a former Alexandria resident who has seen four major storms in her four years here. "I told him, `Maryland has a certain ring to it.' "
The Whites lost more than 40 trees on their property during Hurricane Fran. "At least we've learned something," she said. "We have a chain saw in the back of the car to make sure we can get back in our driveway."
In Charleston, the evacuation was complete by midday Wednesday. Cars virtually disappeared from the streets as residents moved inland or entered some 100 shelters around the state.
Despite the ultimate success of the evacuation, there were recriminations about the massive traffic jams that developed as thousands of Charlestonians mobbed highways leading to Columbia. A trip that ordinarily takes two hours on Tuesday left thousands of motorists stuck on the road for as long as 16 hours.
A number of low-country Carolinians decided to ride out the storm. At the River Bend Bar and Grill, a handful of hard cases drank beer and reminisced about 1989's Hurricane Hugo and other great storms they had known. "You get used to it," said Bryan Tucker, who hurricane-proofs houses for a living. "My roof was hit by a tree during Hugo, but now, of course, the roof's gone, so there's no problem."
In the Bahamas, where the less-populated northern islands were pummeled with Floyd's most ferocious 150 mph winds, amateur radio operators were describing the damage as extensive, Reuters reported. Communication lines were largely down, however, and details were sketchy. The capital city of Nassau, which did not receive a direct hit, was a chaotic mess of downed power poles and sheared-off roofs.
But some good news began to emerge as Floyd departed Florida: The fleet of four $2 billion space shuttles and Walt Disney World emerged largely untouched. At NASA's Kennedy Space Center near Titusville, Fla., sustained winds were 63 mph, with gusts peaking at 81 mph -- well within the tolerance of the space center structures.
Other structures along the Florida coast did not fare so well. Two 70-foot sections of the venerable Daytona Beach pier broke off.
But emergency officials said the state had dodged a possible major disaster. And there was a happy ending for eight crew members from a tugboat that Floyd sank; they were rescued by helicopter crews from the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy and by the Coast Guard.
Floyd was expected to wreak havoc with the eastern seaboard through the weekend, and forecasters said its impact would likely be felt as far north as Newfoundland on Saturday.
Staff writers Sue Anne Pressley in Miami and Kathy Sawyer in Orlando contributed to this report. Fisher reported from Wilmington, Gugliotta from Charleston.