Hurricane Isabel finally made landfall Thursday, hurtling out of the Atlantic and into North Carolina through a small inlet in the southern strand of the Outer Banks.
As the hurricane continued on its northwest path of destruction, residents and state officials began the lengthy process of assessing the damage--a process that will likely continue well into next week. Meanwhile, Isabel continued on a path that will take it through Virginia and into Pennsylvania.
The eye of Isabel rolled into the state Thursday around 1 p.m. with winds of about 100 miles per hour, just south of Ocracoke Island and about 40 miles northeast of the Marine Laboratory at Beaufort. President George W. Bush later declared North Carolina a disaster area, ordering federal aid to the state, as more than 2.2 million customers lost power.
Areas throughout the Outer Banks region saw the most damage and distress--the few reports Thursday afternoon hinted at what residents up and down the coast will have to deal with in the days to come. The storm ripped apart two beach houses and the pier at Nags Head, blew out the windows of a storm shelter near Elizabeth City injuring five people and prompted a rescue mission 10 miles northwest of Beaufort to the town of Harlowe, where 130 people were trapped by floodwaters. Thirty to 40 homes were also destroyed in the small community.
As of late Thursday night, the hurricane was responsible for three deaths. In North Carolina, a utility employee was electrocuted while restoring power, while the storm was blamed for the deaths of two motorists in Virginia and Maryland.
Although 600 North Carolina National Guard members had already been deployed to the coast and tens of thousands of residents evacuated from the Outer Banks, officials continued to take advanced steps throughout Thursday to ameliorate the damage.
Bush's designation of the state as a disaster area came on the heels of requests from the governor and the state's two U.S. senators.
"I write to ask you to quickly approve Governor Easley's request for a federal disaster declaration in response to Hurricane Isabel," Sen. John Edwards said Thursday in a letter to the president. "The devastating storm has made landfall and... it is clear that the state will require federal assistance."
Sen. Elizabeth Dole spent Thursday morning touring the State Emergency Operation Center, speaking with county managers and meeting with emergency management officials. She echoed Edwards' request, writing, "with over 100,000 residents having already lost their power... it is crucial to have all of the appropriate resources in place and take the necessary steps to garner the funds that will be needed." The federal funds can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs and for low coast loans to cover uninsured property losses.
Although Isabel's effects were not felt quite as strongly in the Triangle as they were in areas farther east, it was already clear by noon Thursday that things would not be business as usual.
Durham city government offices closed at noon and the city council's afternoon work session was rescheduled. In addition, the Durham Police Department asked residents to refrain from driving during the storm.
Duke Power reported late Thursday afternoon that over 50,000 customers were already without power in the Triangle and the Triad regions. The company had begun preparing for the storm several days ago by moving crews from predicted-unaffected areas to the Triangle.
One indirect effect of the hurricane in Durham was that the American Red Cross asked for Durham residents living near the Durham Community blood center, on University Drive, to come to the center to donate blood Friday. According to a press release, the current blood supply of O+, O-, B+ and B- blood types is hovering at less than a two-day supply due to the early closing of centers on Thursday.
Donna Gonyeau, communications and marketing director for the central North Carolina chapter of the American Red Cross, said that she could not predict what response would be required from local aid agencies, but that her group is continuing to stock up supplies should they be necessary.
"We will eventually be a part of that nationwide effort" to help victims of the Hurricane, Gonyeau said.
Anticipation of the hurricane led to further precautions up the eastern seaboard. Over 1,500 flights were canceled at airports in major eastern cities, Amtrak halted service south of Washington and the Washington Metro system shut down all subway and bus service. The federal government also shut down.
As of 9 p.m. Thursday night, the center of a weakened Isabel was across the North Carolina-Virginia state line and 40 miles southwest of Richmond with winds of 70 miles per hour. Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center expected Isabel, which had been downgraded to a tropical storm, to move across eastern Virginia and into western Pennsylvania Friday. They expect the tropical storm to dump up to a foot of rain in some of these areas.
In anticipation of flooding and wind damage, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell issued a statewide "disaster emergency" declaration.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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