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Waiting for Hurricane Irene on Roanoke Island, N.C.

August 26, 2011 | 12:27 pm

Click here for more photos of Hurricane Irene.
The shutters were up, pounded into place with a croquet mallet. The lawn furniture was dragged inside. The generator was full of gasoline, and the refrigerator and freezer were stuffed with steaks, ham and shrimp.

John F. Wilson IV was ready for Hurricane Irene. He said on Friday that he intends to ride out the storm this weekend with friends inside the sturdy Roanoke Island Inn, which his family has owned for generations.

Authorities issued a mandatory evacuation order Friday morning for all 35,000 residents of Dare County, N.C., composed largely of the fragile barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. But Wilson and most of his neighbors in Manteo are staying put, as they have for every hurricane and nor'easter for decades.

PHOTOS: In the path of Hurricane Irene

As the last of the Outer Banks' 150,000 tourists filled highways heading north and west, Wilson and other year-round residents of Roanoke Island, population 7,000, made final arrangements to hunker down.

They monitored TV news shows showing images of a massive Hurricane Irene bearing down slowly, inexorably, on the Outer Banks, where landfall is predicted for Saturday afternoon between Morehead City, N.C., and Cape Hatteras.

"We'll get a lot of rain, a lot of flooding, but we'll be just fine," Wilson told a Times reporter as he went through his final pre-storm chores. He collected fresh eggs from the family farm on Roanoke Island, moved his cars to high ground on the island, and made sure a friend's 1911 cedar-shingle cottage was boarded up on Nags Head, across Roanoke Sound from Manteo.

If Irene continues on its present track and roars up the wide Pamlico Sound, Wilson said, Roanoke Island will be battered by high winds and severe flooding. If the storm veers east along the ocean side of the Outer Banks, Nags Head and other beach resort towns will be pummeled by storm surges, punishing winds and heavy rains.


View Hurricane Irene track forecast in a larger map


At midday Friday, the popular beaches at Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills, normally crammed with tens of thousands of tourists in late August, were deserted.  Rental homes and apartments were boarded up, and a few stragglers loaded suitcases into cars in sand-swept driveways. Red flags warning people to stay out of the water were whipped by winds that grew stronger by the hour as the surf churned and pounded.

Wilson drove by the handful of homes belonging to year-round Nags Head residents, all of whom had boarded up and left the beach.

He said firefighters have persuaded hangers-on to leave the beach prior to past storms by simply dropping by and asking them to supply their Social Security numbers and next of kin. 

"Good," he said. "No one should stay out here. It's just not worth the risk."

The risk was much lower in Manteo on Roanoke Island, he said, because it's sheltered by the sounds.  Even so, he said, the current storm path means that the hurricane's northeast quadrant -- the most destructive -- will bear down on Roanoke Island from the west.

"That water will rush in here with a vengeance," he said.

Wilson predicted that this weekend's flooding will stop just below the front porch of his inn, built in the 1860s. The inn is just 8 feet above sea level -- raised in 1981 from 3 1/2 feet.  The interior has not flooded since the floors were raised, Wilson said, and the inn has withstood winds of 120 miles an hour.

"I think we'll stay dry inside," he said. If not, he'll move everyone a mile away to his parents' house, which sits 16 feet above sea level.

Wilson's family founded the island in 1757, nine generations ago.  Hundreds of big storms have come and gone, including so many in Wilson's 59 years that he's lost count. As a former mayor of Manteo -- seven terms -- he's helped the town survive many severe bouts of high wind and water.

The Roanoke Island Inn's tourist guests evacuated Thursday.  Manteo's Piggly Wiggly grocery was boarded up Friday but still catering to a few last-minute customers. The local hardware store was prepared to close up as locals made final purchases of batteries and flashlights.  Local fast-food joints were locked down tight.

Wilson walked into the inn's kitchen and gathered up ingredients for a hearty pre-hurricane dinner Friday -- corned beef, cabbage, rutabaga and carrots, with pound cake for dessert.

"And now," he said, "we wait."


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-- David Zucchino in Manteo, N.C. 

Photo: The tourists have gone, but some longtime residents of the Outer Banks are staying put as Hurricane Irene approaches. Here, an empty life guard chair with the words "Off Duty" is seen on a deserted beach in Nags Head, N.C., on Friday. Credit: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press