WILMINGTON, North Carolina—No place is safe from Hurricane Florence.
From the Marine base at Camp Lejeune on the Atlantic coast to metropolitan Charlotte deep inland, North Carolina is preparing for the category 4 storm expected to make landfall early Friday morning on the border with South Carolina. The hurricane will produce a “life-threatening storm surge,” in the words of the National Hurricane Center, propelled by sustained winds of 130 mph. Costal areas will experience 20 to 30 inches of rain, and 40 inches in isolated areas, the hurricane center said.
Wilmington, a coastal community of about 220,000 people, spent the past 72 hours buying up every piece of plywood and every drop of fuel and water in the area. By Tuesday evening, area stores and businesses were boarded up. Restaurants were closed, even before the first raindrops fell.
A mandatory evacuation started Wednesday at 8 a.m., sending cars and trucks streaming over the intracoastal waterway. Police set up a check point at the base of the Wrightsville Beach Drawbridge, allowing only residents with orange stickers to pass.
Anne Murchison waited at a motel near the bridge for her husband to bring her a sticker so she could clean out her beach house. She has a family house on Wrightsville Beach. The cottage, next to the Blockade Runner resort, was built in 1927. Two years ago, they raised the house up on stilts and replaced the windows.
“I’ve been here 41 years,” she said. “I think we will be fine.”
She plans to ride the storm out at her house in Wilmington. She wants to be there to do damage control.
“The big thing to me is when the power goes out,” she said. “That’s when you lose some of your sense of humor.”
Linda Chewning and Jason Lancaster drove down to Wrightsville Beach to take pictures.
“We want some before and after photos,” Chewning said.
Lancaster is from Ohio and his family has been texting him for days urging him to leave, but this is his first hurricane and he wanted to see it. He is used to tornados, which don’t have the same slow run up.
“You’ve got about 15 minutes to run and hide with a tornado,” Lancaster said.
Gov. Roy Cooper told residents not to wait any longer to leave.
“Disaster is at the doorstep and is coming in,” he said at a press conference Wednesday. “If you are on the coast, there is still time to get out safely. If you are not under an evacuation order, finish your preparations today.”
The area’s first open shelter, Trask Middle School, was full by Wednesday morning. Inside, residents huddled in hallways on cots. Outside, people smoked and killed time waiting for the storm. New Hanover County officials plan to open two more shelters in area schools as more and more residents search for shelter from hurricane Florence.
City transit buses lined up Wednesday to take Wilmington residents north to Raleigh as area shelters filled up.
David Malpass was on the first bus. Homeless, he had no where to go.
“When they said this was going to be a direct hit, it was time to go,” Malpass said.
The region’s homeless were some of the hardest hit and made up some of the first residents to arrive at the shelters, officials said. A three-bus convoy left around 2 p.m. Wednesday.
Tangela Duncan and Latoya Willis smoked a cigarette before boarding. They were new to Wilmington having just moved from Raleigh area. They were using the bus to catch a ride.“We’re not used to all this water,” Duncan said.
Those who hadn’t already left by Tuesday spent the afternoon scrambling to find wood to board their windows.
At a big box hardware store, the lumber shelves were barren. A few men picked through the sheets of wood, making a last-minute attempt to board up in advance of the storm. One man, dressed in a golf shirt and chinos, was hoping to find some wood to board up his sliding glass door. He planned to stay—until Florence strengthened to a category 4 overnight Monday.
“I’d stay if it was only a three,” said the man who was in too much of a hurry to give his name, but said he’d lived in Wilmington for a couple of decades.
On the border with South Carolina, Brunswick County officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for residents in low-lying areas. Nearby beach towns—Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, North Topsail Beach, and Kure Beach—also ordered residents to leave.
After meeting with officials in Carolina Beach, Gov. Roy Cooper wished the town “Godspeed.”
Florence could be the first major hurricane to slam North Carolina dead-on since Fran hit as a Category 4 in 1996. Fran caused more than $8 billion in damage across the state and killed 37 people.
"It's been quite some time since we've seen a storm of this magnitude," said Stephen Still, North Carolina Emergency Operations Center director, at a press conference Monday. "In its characteristics, it is very Hugo-esque. It is a major hurricane nonetheless."
In Charlotte, some in the city were quick to draw comparisons between Florence and Hugo, which devastated the city in 1989. A category 4 hurricane, it made landfall north of Charleston, South Carolina, and cut across western North Carolina putting Charlotte on its powerful eastern edge.
The city sits in Mecklenburg County with 20,000 acres designated as floodplain. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services has been clearing area streams of debris this week ahead of the storm.
Charlotte Motor Speedway has opened its campground to evacuees from the coast, even though the area is likely to experience heavy rain this weekend. With a few days left until the storm’s effects are expected here, many Charlotteans, after they’ve bought their generators and packed their emergency kits, are doing the only thing left to do: wait and watch.
Slate skies and afternoon thunderstorms contributed to a sense of foreboding in Charlotte on Monday as residents prepared for Florence. By Tuesday morning, the shelves of bottled water at many area grocery stores were bare, and at least one area Home Depot was sold out of generators.
“We’ve been getting calls all day,” a sales associate there said, listing the most popular requests: Batteries, generators, flashlights, water, and even small portable grills.
Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, which operates two homeless shelters outside of flood zones, said its priority is to ensure the men in its care are “present and accounted for.” Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Care and Control has “dusted off” its emergency plan, according to a spokesperson, and is prepared to rescue pets and will set up a temporary shelter for them in a shelter for evacuees.
Under blue skies on Tuesday morning, John Wendel, spokesman for Storm Water Services, said, “We are lucky to have several days to prepare, but with unprecedented flooding possible, it's hard to know if you are ready.”
Charlotteans are quick to prepare, possibly because natural disasters are rare for the inland city. In fact, Charlotte recently appeared on a list of places best suited to withstand the consequences of climate change, in part because it’s protected from the worst effects of Atlantic hurricanes. Protected, but not immune.