East Coast residents bracing for Hurricane Isabel's arrival

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

TOPSAIL BEACH, N.C. -- Residents up and down the East Coast boarded up windows with plywood, hauled their boats inland and stocked up on generators, batteries and flashlights Monday as a fearsome Hurricane Isabel churned toward land with winds howling at 125 mph.

Forecasters said Isabel could hit anywhere from North Carolina to New Jersey late Thursday or early Friday.

Even though the storm was still at least three days away, coastal residents were already taking precautions, and the Navy faced a decision whether to move Atlantic Fleet ships out of harm's way.

In Virginia, Gov. Mark R. Warner declared a state of emergency, putting National Guardsmen, state police and transportation crews on full alert.

At Taylor's Do-It Center hardware store in Norfolk, Va., assistant manager George Wolf said he was swamped with customers as soon as the doors opened at 8 a.m., and large batteries and flashlights were sold out.

"You would have thought we were giving stuff away," Wolf said. "I just sold my last 30 sheets of plywood."

Stevens Hardware in Annapolis, Md., ran out of batteries, flashlights, lamp oil, tape, camping lamps, can openers, plastic sheeting and candles before noon Monday, said manager Mike Stevens.

"A lot of people are calling for generators. I don't think there's a generator in Annapolis to be bought," Stevens said.

Officials in Baltimore canceled leave for staffers in the police, fire, transportation and public works departments.

"Right now we are preparing ... as if the storm is coming right at us," Mayor Martin O'Malley said.

At 4 p.m. Monday, Isabel was centered about 740 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, and was moving northwest at about 8 mph.

The storm weakened Monday to a Category 3 with sustained wind blowing at 125 mph, with higher gusts, the National Hurricane Center said. On Sunday, Isabel's top wind hit 160 mph, making it a Category 5 storm.

Isabel is the first major hurricane to threaten the mid-Atlantic since Floyd wreaked havoc on the East Coast in September 1999, leading to 56 deaths.

All 921 residents of Ocracoke Island in North Carolina's vulnerable Outer Banks were ordered to begin evacuating Monday afternoon. A line quickly formed at the ferry dock.

The evacuation was ordered because of fear that already rising swells could wash out parts of the island highway and maroon some residents. But the sky was still sunny and the weather was generally pleasant.

In other islands on the outer banks, residents started boarding windows, moving their vessels inland and checking up on their generators.

Kay Burros and Anne Troutman decided it was time to check their 5,000-watt home generator at Surf City.

"We've had it about 3 years, but haven't cranked it up in a while. It's been so long, we have to read the instructions," Burros said.

Up the coast in Dover, Del., B.J. Whittaker snapped up 10 sheets of plywood at a Lowe's home improvement store. "I can't do anything if the roof blows off, but I can keep my windows from getting broken," he said.

Emergency officials in central and eastern Pennsylvania started planning for the growing likelihood that Isabel or its remnants would bring high wind and heavy rain into the state by Friday morning.

Pennsylvania already has had a wetter than normal summer, and hundreds of people were evacuated Monday in West Chester, Pa., west of Philadelphia, because of extensive flooding caused by more than 8 inches of rain overnight.

In New Jersey, residents of Bound Brook remembered with dread the $70 million in damage caused by the remnants of Hurricane Floyd as it swept through in September 1999.

Flood waters 10 feet high nearly put Phyllis Pournaras' diner out of business. But she and others rebuilt with the help of government disaster relief -- and the faith that they'd already been through the worst.

"If it floods again, we're done," Pournaras said. "You just don't have the heart to do that again."

Farther north, Massachusetts was expected to miss the brunt of the storm, but authorities warned that the coast still could be battered by heavy seas.

"The bottom line is that if I were a mariner and I had to be doing my work, I'd be getting it complete by Wednesday night," said Walter Drag, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Massachusetts.

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