It might have been a last-blast summer weekend of sun, fun and cold beer had not nature intervened.
But with a muscular hurricane moving up the coast, Friday became a last dip in the ocean and goodbye as tens of thousands of people turned their backs and headed for higher ground.
There was more demand for batteries than beer among the few who remained on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Surfers who delight in roiled water before a hurricane got in their last licks at Virginia Beach. And Ocean City took on the vacant look of a warm day in February.
“We’ve managed to get a bit of business today — but that’s because we’re the only store still open,” said Brad Donnan, who manages Cahoon’s Market in Nags Head, N.C., as he glanced around the quiet aisles. “I’ve lived here for 22 years and this one might be the worst one I’ve ever seen.”
Hurricane Irene was forecast to hit the Outer Banks around midday Saturday.
By Friday afternoon, Nags Head was a ghost town. Almost all of the motels and swim wear shops on the main thoroughfares were closed. Several were boarded up. The weather was cloudy and humid.
Red flags warned that swimming was already unsafe. Police went door-to-door to remind residents that the county-wide mandatory evacuation orders did not just apply to tourists.
The Outer Banks’ 33,000 residents are normally fairly stoic when it comes to hurricanes. Many describe it as a part of the excitement of living close to nature and even enjoy throwing “hurricane parties,” boozy get-togethers that make the most of the fact that everyone has to be inside while the storm rages. However, on this occasion, even some stalwarts have decamped to the mainland.
“Why gamble?” said Jamie Terrell, a 34-year-old construction worker, as he and his wife loaded their black sport-utility vehicle with crates of food and bags of clothes. Terrell was driving inland to his brother’s house. He and his wife have lived in Kill Devil Hills, the neighboring town to Nags Head, for 12 years and usually stay put during the hurricanes that regularly hit these beaches.
“We’ve lost several thousand dollars of revenue this weekend,” said William Peters, who has run the Cypress House Inn in Kill Devil Hills for seven years. All six of his rooms, priced at $199 per night, had been booked this weekend. “We have to refund deposits — it would be harsh not to — and there’s no way to make the money back. Once the weekend’s passed, it’s passed.”
Despite police visits, it looked like most residents of the Outer Banks had decided to stay put.
“We have to stay because, if you leave, you can’t get back,” said Mary-Lou Allen, 56, as she boarded up her house in Nags Head on Thursday evening. She recalled that, during 2003’s Hurricane Isabel, those who left the islands could not get back home for eight days because of flooding.
Allen, like many of her neighbors, had stocked up on water, ice, canned food and crackers. She had also bought gas for her generator.
To the north, in Virginia Beach, Scott Barta grabbed his surf board on Friday and went for a rollicking ride in the waves.
“Normally out here, there’s nothing. You barely stand up, and that’s the end of the ride,” said Barta, 41, who owns a paving business.
Not on Friday. Instead of quickie runs on two-foot waves, Barta cruised for 10 seconds or more that were five feet high. Dozens of others were also paddled out into rising seas looking for thrills.
“Most of the people who live around here look forward to the August-to-September hurricane waves because that’s as good as it gets,” Barta said.
Residents in the Hampton Roads prepared for Irene’s arrival with a mixture of grave concern and cool defiance. Duct tape crisscrossed windows, and plywood went up over storefronts, often spray painted with messages such as “Irene, go away, have mercy,” “Irene loves saltwater taffy,” or simply “Store is open.”
The seats had been removed from a ferris wheel near the boardwalk, letters had been removed from outdoor marquees, and cranes were lowered to the ground at construction sites along the major highway leading into the city.
Meanwhile, a long line of traffic snaked out of Hampton Roads on Route 64 westbound as visitors and some residents evacuated. Other residents beat a steady path to convenience stores and groceries to stock up on milk, ice, beer and other essentials.
Officials also urged voluntary evacuation of Knotts Island near the North Carolina border, city spokeswoman Mary Hancock said.
Yet the previously scheduled East Coast Surfing Championship, said to be the second longest-running such event in the world, went on more or less as scheduled. People strolled the boardwalk. Others milled outside ice cream parlors or lugged boogie boards toward the beach. Murphy’s Irish pub advertised a “Hurricane Party.”
Lisa Heath, 40, of Chesapeake, said she picked up loose things in her back yard.
“We’re used to all this,” Heath said.
If the boardwalk was open in Virginia Beach, there was no such activity up the coast in Ocean City.
The wide boardwalk planks were clear except for sea gulls and pigeons. The seats had been removed from the ferris wheel at the Jolly Roger Amusement Park. Heavy garage-style storm doors were down and sandbagged at the T-Shirt and candy stores facing the still calm Atlantic, a summer fun land prepared for the worst.
By Friday afternoon, the mandatory evacuation was all but complete and apparently successful. Ocean Highway, normally jammed with vacationers during these final days of summer vacation season, was an empty, endless vista of blinking traffic lights. Shuttered restaurants continued to flash digital ads for steamed crabs and sea-salt shooters over empty parking lots. Hotels, their balconies stripped of table and chairs, stood deserted and dark.
Tim Jenkins, 19, was waiting outside a shuttered scooter store for a ride. The year-round Ocean City resident had stayed up the all-night in order to go out body surfing at dawn Friday in the building waves. But by day’s end, his mother had insisted he join her in nearby Chincoteague until the storm had passed.
“I want to stay but they say they’re going to cut off power and water to make everybody go,” said Jenkins. “I’m going to try to get back right away to catch some of the surf.”
A block away, two international workers took photographs of each other in front of a plywood sign reading “Jesus, Lord of Irene.” Igor Yeryukov, 21, and Nikita Abdrashitov, 22, both students from Kyrgyzstan working as Ocean City cooks for the summer, had ignored an organized evacuation of summer workers to nearby Salisbury in order to experience a tropical tempest.
“I want to see a hurricane, to feel it,” said Yeryukov.
“It will be a new emotion for us,” said Abdrashitov. “We don’t have hurricanes in Kyrgyzstan.”