As Hurricane Florence hurtles to the Carolinas and residents gear up for what’s now a Category 3 storm, our reporters and photojournalists are on the coast. For Thursday’s live updates, go here.
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Morehead City: Ready to ‘Adapt and overcome’
7:15 p.m.: The street closest to the waterfront here in Morehead City was quiet on Wednesday afternoon. Restaurants and parking lots sat empty. The boats normally tied to the docks were gone, secured somewhere else. The Sanitary Fish Market, perhaps the best-known restaurant on this side of the Bogue Sound, was closed, its iconic sign supported by wooden rods.
A block west, Sammy Boyd, the owner of Southern Salt Seafood Company and Waterfront Restaurant, served a solitary patron a bottle of beer and shot of liquor. It was midafternoon and the clouds darkened and a steady rain fell while the water in the sound became choppy. Boyd wondered how his building might weather Hurricane Florence. He wondered the same for one of his houses, across the street.
“It’s the water pressure that tears these places up,” said Boyd, 47, who has the look of a man who has spent his life on the coast because, in fact, he has. “It’s not the wind. The wind ain’t gonna make no difference. It’s the water pressure. If it gets up underneath it, it’ll float it up, get it shakin’, and then you’ll have major issues, you know.”
If the water pressure becomes strong enough, Boyd said, it could destroy his property. He is remaining in Morehead City, where forecasters predict the hurricane’s rain could be among its most intense and prolonged, in part to keep an eye on things. Boyd was born here. He said he was 8 years old when he began working on the docks for a seafood company. He didn’t give much thought to leaving.
On Tuesday night, he said he heard crickets from across the sound.
“That’s kind of eerie,” he said. “Because you don’t ever hear that, you know?”
In Boyd’s estimate, about 50 percent of Morehead City’s residents have left town to seek shelter elsewhere. Their departure created a quiet scene on Wednesday. Highway 70, the main thoroughfare through town, was quiet. Some businesses were boarded up. Some hotels were closed, notices taped to their doors notifying potential inhabitants of a mandatory evacuation, and where to seek shelter.
“It looked like they had (the storm) turned off a little bit, but now I don’t know,” Boyd said of the storm. “It might be coming right for us. … I think we’re probably going to get a good hit, is what I think. I hope not.”
In the meantime he worked the bar in his restaurant. His sister helped pick up chairs outside on the back deck. Normally, Boyd said, he might have a staff of 20 people working. On Wednesday afternoon it was just him and his sister, and one man sitting alone at the bar with his bottle. Outside of that, the restaurant with one of the best views on this part of the coast sat empty.
“We’ll just adapt and overcome,” Boyd said with a laugh. “I mean, it ain’t no big deal to me.
“Instead of doing the whole menu, I’m just going to do a shrimp basket, or french fries and slaw are all you’re going to get. I mean, what are you going to do? Tell me no? So I’ll make it work for me. And I ain’t going to do no crazy mixed drinks.”
Still, the prospect of flooding worried him. Boyd understands why the fear surrounding this hurricane is different from others he’s experienced.
“If the storm comes in here at high tide,” he said, “we’re going to have some real issues here.”
Oak Island: To evacuate, or not
5:22 p.m.: If gas is a precious commodity to people evacuating from coastal communities ahead of a hurricane, so is ice to those who elect to stay.
“We’re going to fill up our washing machine and all our coolers,” said Lisa Harrelson, who traveled from her home in Southport, south of Wilmington, across the bridge to Oak Island in search of ice. She found it at an automated dispensary, just about the only business still going on the island since officials asked guests and residents to leave.
Harrelson stacked one 16-pound bag after another into the back of a pickup truck.
All of her family is in Southport, she said, and she has nowhere else to spend the next few nights.
“We don’t have no choice but to stay,” she said. “We’re praying that it gets here and keeps us safe and goes on its way.”
One of the last businesses on the island to close was the pier house at the Ocean Crest Pier, where manager Steve Sanders said Spanish mackerel had been biting earlier in the morning. It was such a beautiful day at the beach — robin’s-egg blue skies behind high, wispy clouds — that it seemed a shame when Sanders had to tell the last fishermen to pack it up.
Sanders, who lives on the island, was still debating whether to evacuate. He was concerned, he said, that if he left, it might be a long time before he could return to the island to check for damages, arrange for repairs and get the pier open again.
While the weather was perfect Wednesday afternoon, it is expected to turn late Thursday as Hurricane Florence edges closer to shore. Once it does, officials will keep an eye on their anemometers. At sustained winds of 40 mph, the town closes the two bridges that lead onto the island, and they are not reopened until the storm passes.
Sanders doesn’t take storm warnings lightly. On a wall in the pier house hangs the tattered remains of an American flag that hung on a pole at the end of the 893-foot-long pier through Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Before that storm, Sanders said, Oak Island had three piers. The storm destroyed one and damaged the other two.
The island was quiet Wednesday. Most of those who wanted to board up their homes already had done so, based on predictions that the storm would arrive earlier in the week.
That left the beach to a handful of people, such as Suzanne Champion, who sat on the sand and watched her husband, daughter and some friends try to surf. With the hurricane still 400 miles offshore, the wave action was pretty placid.
Champion seemed a little disappointed, given all the storm’s hype.
“We’re all going to die, and we can’t even surf,” she said.
— MARTHA QUILLIN
Wrightsville Beach evacuated
3:15 p.m.: As Hurricane Florence drew down on the coast, the streets of Wrightsville Beach stood as empty as the grocery store shelves.
Even Walmart and McDonald’s shut down in Wilmington, slapping plywood over their windows. At the bridge to Wrightsville Beach, police stopped all traffic except for cars with resident stickers or a media pass.
Just over the bridge, Gordon Reddick screwed the final board over the front door of his Redix beach supply store, which he has operated nearly 50 years. The boards across his storefront showed spray-painted names of every storm since Hurricane Bertha in 1996.
In other words, Reddick wouldn’t think of leaving. He sold three life jackets to residents who walked over the bridge, even though Redix looked like a plywood tree fort.
“You think you’re going to hide,” Reddick said. “Better stay where you feel safe.”
Though evacuations remained voluntary on Wrightsville, most residents fled the island. Most of the cars parked at Johnnie Mercer’s Pier belonged to news crews — including one from an Australian TV channel.
But retiree John Phelps pedaled an old-fashioned bicycle to the beach as if it were any late-summer Wednesday. A Category 5 storm might have scared him off. Not this one.
“I’m here taking inventory,” he said. “I’ll come back in a week and see what’s left.”
He won’t ride out Florence on his bike, though.
“I’ll be in the closet at home,” he said. “With no windows.”
— JOSH SHAFFER
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