After pounding the Bahamas as a Category 5 storm, killing at least 20 people, the erratic storm weakened early in the week only to pick up strength briefly overnight Wednesday and then weaken again.
(TNS) — CHARLESTON, S.C. — Blustery wind and sideways rain began to lash the low-lying coast of South and North Carolina on Thursday as Hurricane Dorian churned off shore, downing power lines and stately live oak trees, spawning tornadoes and threatening hundreds of thousands of coastal residents with intense flooding.
After pounding the Bahamas as a Category 5 hurricane, killing at least 20 people, the erratic and wobbly storm weakened early in the week only to pick up strength briefly overnight Wednesday and then weaken again. By Thursday morning, Dorian was a high Category 2 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 110 mph.
Shortly after 9 a.m., a tornado touched down in Emerald Isle, a long barrier island in central North Carolina, knocking down rows of mobile homes in the Boardwalk RV park.
“During hurricanes, tornadoes can form quickly with little warning,” the North Carolina Emergency Management warned on Twitter, noting that the threat of tornadoes would continue across parts of central and eastern North Carolina through Friday as Dorian’s bands expand north.
As the eye of the storm moved north-northeast 50 miles south of Charleston, it was forecast to veer close to the Carolinas, possibly making landfall north of Charleston. Slowly, water began to rise Thursday morning in this historic city, submerging entire stretches of streets in some areas, as gusts of winds knocked down palmetto fronds and tree branches and scattered pink crepe myrtle petals across downtown like confetti.
In East Charleston, Terrence McNeil, a 24-year-old plasterer, stood on his narrow porch in white socks and sandals, smoking a cigarette as he watched rainwater puddle around his squat housing complex and submerge the wheels of a row of sedans and SUVs.
Like most residents here, he had received severe weather alerts from the National Weather Service on his cellphone, but he wasn’t too worried.
“It ain’t nothing new,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders. “Charleston is always flooding.”
In front of him, a neighbor, Serenbe Bruce, dashed through the pelting rain, hop-scotching around the soggy grass and muddy puddles in light sneakers and clutching the hood of her green parka so the fierce wind wouldn’t whip it off her head.
“I’ve run out of milk for my boy,” the 25-year-old said as she ducked under an awning for a minute. “Hopefully a store will be open somewhere.”
She did not have a car or rain boots, and all the nearby convenience stores, gas stations and restaurants were locked or boarded up.
Dorian is not as powerful as it was when it made landfall in the Bahamas, but forecasters note that it has grown in size, with hurricane-force winds stretching as far as 60 miles from its center and tropical-storm-force winds reaching as far as 195 miles.
While Florida emerged largely unscathed as Dorian moved up the southeastern coast of the United States — the closest Dorian’s eye got to the Florida coast was 90 miles near Cape Canaveral — the Carolinas may not be so lucky.
Brittany MacNamara, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Charleston, said Dorian was wobbling Thursday morning and could get a bit closer to the coast, bringing inner rain bands and high wind gusts to the shore, before moving northeast and potentially making landfall further north of Charleston.
“The flooding occurring now is only going to get worse throughout the day,” she said, noting that some areas of Charleston had already seen five inches of rain and could see an extra 10 inches. “Downtown Charleston sees a lot of floods, but this is definitely not a normal flooding concern,” she added. “It will be something that is not seen often.”
Across the South Carolina coast, more than 800,000 people in low-lying and flood-prone areas were under mandatory evacuation orders, but many did not leave.
Forecasters and emergency officials urged residents of South and North Carolina not to be complacent as the storm’s eye was forecast to get within 30 miles of Charleston, S.C. Thursday and brush the Outer Banks of North Carolina on Friday.
As Dorian pulled away from the Bahamas, rescue crews Wednesday found apocalyptic wreckage: entire neighborhoods destroyed with collapsed and flattened homes, battered palm trees and downed power lines, streets strewn with rubble and damaged SUVs and sedans.
As the storm-related death toll on the Bahamas reached at least 20, Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said that officials expected the number would increase.
“I ask you to pray for the families and loved ones of the deceased,” he said after touring Grand Bahama on Wednesday on an initial assessment flight on a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter.
Dorian had made landfall Sunday as the most powerful hurricane on record in the Bahamas, with gusts of winds at times reaching 220 mph.
A string of organizations from across the globe — from the U.S. Coast Guard to Britain’s Royal Navy — have descended on the Bahamas to airlift endangered residents to safety and offer food and medicine. The U.S. Coast Guard had conducted more than 60 rescues across the Bahamas, but still many residents remain unaccounted for.
Dorian is the latest of several hurricanes to threaten the Carolina coast in recent years.
Last year, Hurricane Florence dropped more than 30 inches of rain on parts of the Carolinas, killing more than 50 people. In 2017, Hurricane Irma stirred up a massive 10-foot tidal surge that submerged large swaths of the Lowcountry. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane near McClellanville, S.C., and lingered in North Carolina, inundating rivers with heavy rain that caused devastating flooding.
In the low-lying city of Charleston, a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg held a news conference Wednesday to urge residents to prepare for dangerous storm surge flooding.
But not before pausing to note the suffering hundreds of miles away in the Bahamas.
Pulling out a gold-leaf Bible from beneath his yellow notepad, Tecklenburg read from Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and our strength, always ready to help us in times of trouble,” he said “And therefore, we will not fear though the waters of the sea may roar and foam.”
“For 36 hours, I want Charleston to be a ghost town,” he said. “I want everybody out of sight — if they’re not out of town, inside, hunkered down and safe.”
In neighboring North Carolina, where Dorian is expected to pummel the port city of Wilmington, as well as the 200-mile string of barrier islands on the Outer Banks, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday the state’s first reported storm-related fatality. An 85-year-old man died Wednesday after falling off a ladder while he was preparing his home for the storm.
“Hurricane Dorian is ready to unleash its fury on our state,” Cooper said at a press briefing Thursday morning, noting the storm was already unleashing tornadoes. “Get to safety and stay there. Don’t let your guard down.”
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