Outer Banks visitors evacuate ahead of Maria

Published 7:24 pm Monday, September 25, 2017

OCRACOKE — Authorities ordered hundreds of visitors Monday to leave much of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, warily eyeing Hurricane Maria already kicking up heavy surf along the Southeast coast.

More than 200 visitors have already left Hyde County’s Ocracoke Island amid a mandatory evacuation order imposed early Monday on that fragile barrier island jutting into the Atlantic. Authorities warn that high winds and flooding are possible threats as Maria passes well offshore. Neighboring Dare County also ordered an evacuation of visitors from neighboring Hatteras Island starting at midday.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami has issued a tropical storm warning from Cape Lookout north up the coast to the Virginia line. A tropical storm watch also was in effect for other areas.

Tourists packed up and drove off — some after only one day of what was supposed to be a weeklong vacation. Business owners braced for what they said would be yet another financial hit this season.

A construction accident at the peak of tourist season in late July had cut power to Ocracoke and Hatteras for several days, resulting in the evacuation of an estimated 50,000 tourists. Businesses lost millions of dollars.

Chips Stevens, the owner of Blackbeard’s Lodge on Ocracoke, said Maria effectively makes 2017 a two-storm season, which is the “worst-case scenario.”

“You can have a really good season up until a storm, and then it ends up being an average or a below-average season,” Stevens said. “But if you have two storms that makes it very difficult. Fall is often where you make your profit.”

Even in late September with school back in session, the Outer Banks attracts newlyweds and empty nesters. So-called “snow birds” also come through on their drive south. Business continues into October with fishermen.

“We can get some decent storms in October,” Stevens said. “God forbid we get anything else.”

On Hatteras, Jay Wrenn and his wife packed up their car for the five-hour drive back home to Burlington, North Carolina.

They had arrived at their rented cottage in Rodanthe on Sunday with a week’s worth of groceries. By noon Monday the macaroni salad they had made was in the trash.

Wrenn doubted they would make the drive back if the evacuation order is lifted Thursday. It would leave too little time.

“It’s an overreaction like most of them are,” Wrenn, 66, said of the evacuation order. “There may be some danger but I think it’s on the low end.”

At 2p.m. EDT Monday, the hurricane was centered about 300 miles (480 kilometers) south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Maria had top sustained winds of 80 mph (130 kph) and was moving to the north at 7 mph (11 kph). The hurricane center said the core of Maria was expected to move well east of the Southeast U.S. coast over the coming day while it gradually weakens. It was expected to become a tropical storm on Tuesday night.

Forecasters said storm surge flooding is possible starting Tuesday in the coastal sounds of the Outer Banks.

In developments, authorities said Monday, an apparent piece of World War II ordnance has washed up on North Carolina’s Outer Banks amid heavy swells from Hurricane Maria lurking offshore. The U.S. National Park Service said the unexploded device was found Monday on a beach at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in Avon. An explosive ordnance disposal unit from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point was headed to the site to remove the device. The park service said it’s the third time unexploded ordnance has washed ashore this year. And WITN in Greenville reported another item was found Monday morning on Whale Head Beach elsewhere on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Currituck County Sheriff’s Lt. Jason Banks said the Cherry Point unit determined the other device was a training mine, and because it wasn’t live, there was no danger to the public.

Maria battered the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico as a major Category 4 hurricane last week. It claimed dozens of lives in its rampage across the Caribbean.