Hurricane Irene: As many as 200,000 evacuate in North Carolina
On Thursday, state officials ordered tourists to pack up the sand toys and abandon the beach rentals. Residents have been asked to find a safe spot farther inland as well.
Local news reports pegged the number of evacuees -- tourists as well as residents -- at 200,000, although Ernie Seneca, a spokesman for North Carolina Division of Emergency Management, said he was unable to confirm it. It did not surprise him, however. “We’re at the height of tourist season,” he said.
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Evacuations had already begun for visitors to some of the state’s fragile barrier islands, including Ocracoke Island.
The governor's office said that, beginning Thursday morning, all Hyde County residents and all visitors to Dare County would be evacuated.
Jo Ann Smith, director of emergency services in North Carolina's Carteret County, said visitors and residents were eager for information about the hurricane. “The phones are ringing off the hook,” she said.
Evacuations were mandatory for visitors and non-residents in low-lying areas, but seasoned residents were being given a little more flexibility. Starting at 6 a.m. Friday, a voluntary evacuation will go into effect for those who live in trailer homes or in low-lying areas, as well as for the sick or elderly. Smith said she did not anticipate any resistance. Visitors do not seem eager to find themselves facing down a hurricane, and “residents are used to it,” she said.
The barrier islands, known as the Outer Banks, stretch for 100 miles along the coast of North Carolina and are a popular tourist destination, with broad sandy beaches and a dynamic landscape that generally make for great vacationing, except in the middle of a hurricane. And the latest hurricane center advisory projects that Hurricane Irene will make landfall late Saturday afternoon near Ocracoke, which is in the middle of the island stretch.
It's unclear just how intense Irene will be when it hits North Carolina. It is currently classified as Category 3, with winds that could exceed 110 mph, but it might swell to Category 4.
More than 200 National Guard troops and highway patrol officers are being activated and placed on stand-by in areas most likely to be affected along the coastline.
“Hurricane Irene poses a significant threat to our state,” North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue said in a statement issued by her office, “and we need to take appropriate action to ensure the safety of our residents and visitors, along with property and infrastructure along our coast.”
-- Rene Lynch and Deborah Netburn
Photo: Cars drive north on Highway 12 on Pea Island, N.C., in North Carolina's Outer Banks on Thursday. Credit: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press