Bonnie's winds lash coast; eye due soon
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WILMINGTON, North Carolina (CNN) -- With the center of Hurricane Bonnie still off shore, tropical storm-force wind and rain from the north-moving storm were lashing the North Carolina coast Wednesday. Damage from the huge storm could be intensified by the timing of its arrival on land in early afternoon, coinciding with high tide.
Another storm in the Atlantic -- Hurricane Danielle -- could be as strong as Bonnie in days, forecasters said.
Hurricane warnings from Bonnie were in effect across a 450-mile stretch of coastline from Chincoteague, Virginia, to Cape Romain, South Carolina, about 50 miles (80 km) north of Charleston.
A hurricane watch was in effect from Chincoteague to Cape Henlopen, Delaware.
Warnings and watches south of Cape Romain were discontinued at 11 a.m. EDT.
The erratic storm, which took a more northerly path overnight, is expected to make landfall between Morehead City and Wilmington, North Carolina, in the afternoon, the National Hurricane Center said.
Even before the storm's full-force arrival, wind gusts reached 100 mph Wednesday morning on coastal areas near Wilmington, blowing rain horizontally and sending traffic signals creaking back and forth above deserted streets.
The long hurricane warning area indicated that forecasters were concerned beyond the area of the storm's direct impact.
"Once it comes ashore, we do expect it to turn back out to sea," said Jerry Jarrell of the National Hurricane Center. That would keep areas to the southeast of the storm's center "in these strong winds for a long period of time," he told CNN on Wednesday morning.
In Virginia, the Navy sent about 40 ships at the Norfolk Naval Base out to sea to weather the storm, including the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and the USS Roosevelt.
The potential for storm damage also is heightened by the fact that Bonnie's arrival on land roughly coincides with high tide along the Carolina coastline. "If the tide is high, the storm surge could be much greater," Witt said Tuesday.
Storm surge is an increase in the height of sea water, usually due to a hurricane. The storm surge for a Category 3 hurricane, such as Bonnie, is between 9 and 12 feet above normal sea level.
"It's coming in at high tide. We are going to have some historically high tide surges," said North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt.
High tide in Wilmington was expected around 1:30 p.m. EDT. Forecasters also said the region could receive up to 8 inches of rain by Wednesday evening.
As Bonnie approached on Tuesday, authorities in North and South Carolina issued evacuation orders -- some mandatory, some voluntary -- affecting more than a half-million people .
But on Wednesday, with the hurricane closer to shore, officials urged residents and tourists who had not evacuated to stay put because conditions were too dangerous.
Anyone on the roads now "could find themselves in the heart of the storm," said Fire Chief Doug Penland off Kill Devil Hills, a community on North Carolina's Outer Banks, a chain of barrier islands.
Added Dorothy Holt, a public information officer for Dare County: "By (Wednesday) afternoon, the (most powerful) winds will be here and we don't want people moving once those winds are here. ...We're going to be hit pretty hard."
She said tens of thousands of tourists and residents evacuated on Tuesday, but that about 10,000 permanent residents were staying put. Holt warned anyone who stays that if hurricane force winds hit "they will be on their own. Our emergency personnel won't be able to help."
The Coast Guard closed the port at Wilmington Tuesday evening and said it would remain sealed until conditions improve. "We're hunkered down right now," said Capt. John Williams, commanding officer of the Coast Guard in Wilmington. "The port is secure."
The last major storm to come ashore in the Wilmington area was Hurricane Fran in September 1996.
Whether or not homeowners evacuate, they should make sure important insurance papers are kept in airtight containers, advised insurance counselor Peter Van Aartrijk.
"Take a good home inventory," he told CNN. "It can be a list. It can be a videotape. It's very important when it comes time to prove your damage to have that."
Hurricane Danielle, trailing Bonnie as it neared the U.S. East Coast, achieved wind speeds of 105 mph and was upgraded to a Category 2 storm by the National Hurricane Center.
At 11 a.m. EDT, Danielle was about 645 (1035 km) miles east of the Leeward Islands in the eastern Caribbean.
The storm was moving west-northwest at near 21 mph (33 km/h) but posed no immediate threat to land.
Forecasters said they expected Danielle to pass well north of the Leeward Islands.
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