Union Tribune

September 19, 2003

Tempest packed a punch, but not like those of past


MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. The five elderly members of the Hurricane Club concluded over drinks in a hotel room that while Isabel had given them a scare, the storm couldn't hold an emergency flashlight to Hurricane Floyd of 1999 or Hurricane Hazel of 1954, or the ripsnorting beast from the sea known to history as The Storm of '33.

"I was 9 years old in 1933, and back then water got so high that people jumped out of second-story windows to get into the pine trees," said Hildred Parker. She was sitting on a bed surrounded by the four other longtime friends who gather here whenever a big storm threatens their homes on the nearby beach.

Club member Al Chappell said the ruckus Isabel raised here yesterday was not a big deal especially because Isabel had threatened catastrophe earlier in the week. On Monday, Isabel had been a killer Category 5 hurricane, plowing through the Atlantic with 160-mph winds.

"If she stayed a class 5, we wouldn't be anywhere near the coast," Chappell said. "We'd be up the road maybe 150 miles west of here."

Although Isabel was downgraded to a Category 2 hurricane before its 100-mph winds reached the coast here yesterday afternoon and was further downgraded to a tropical storm last night, it heaved enough wind, rain and surf at the neighboring seaside community of Beaufort to swamp boats, tear the awning off a Texaco station and leave scores of residents cut off in their waterfront homes.

According to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, a storm with winds in excess of 155 mph is considered a Category 5 hurricane. Storms with wind speeds between 96 mph and 110 mph are considered Category 2.

Rescue squads in trucks and boats headed to a low-lying area east of here after learning that at least 200 homes were flooded and some people were stranded. At least 4,000 people in the county lost power, authorities said.

"This one ain't as bad as others," said Pamela Wesley, whose family runs Big Daddy Wesley's Grocery. But on the other hand, she noted, the flooding cut off access to their home for the first time, making it a lucky thing that they could sleep in the store.

The grocery, selling everything from coolers to chewing tobacco, reopened when the storm abated and was doing a brisk business. Everything else in the area stayed closed.

Nearby, in a patch of water with the questionable name of Safe Harbor, the storm shoved a fishing trawler into a motor yacht, nearly cutting the yacht in half.

Early yesterday morning, as rain and high winds pounded the coast in advance of Isabel's eye, Bill Bibb, a resident of one of the barrier islands, seemed resigned as he sipped coffee in a nearby motel lobby adorned with fliers advertising dinner cruises, parasailing and pier fishing.

"If you aren't prepared to lose your house, you shouldn't live here," Bibb said. Through the window behind him, plastic patio furniture floated in the pool. Motel owner Tom Bennett Jr. had tossed it there for safekeeping.

"We take care of anything that could become a projectile in the wind, whether it's the furniture or the trash bins," Bennett said.

As the winds gathered force at midmorning, motel guest Charles Patterson drove 3 miles to check his home in a neighborhood where the houses were threatened by 80-foot pine trees.

Although Patterson had boarded up the windows to protect the house from flying tree debris, he and his wife still checked into the motel. They had taken with them some of their most valued possessions: family pictures, important documents, and lighthouse paintings by Charles' late stepfather, renowned artist Pers Crowell.

At their late-afternoon gathering, the Hurricane Club celebrated the news that their homes had come through without serious damage. This morning, they would head home.

Hotel staff member Heather Maxwell took a phone call from a radio station in Europe from which country wasn't entirely clear where reports earlier in the week that warned of catastrophe had aroused attention.

"I told them it was less than we anticipated," Maxwell said. "I said it could have been a lot worse."