Hundreds of thousands of coastal residents from Florida to North Carolina moved inland Wednesday while forecasters puzzled over the eventual path of Hurricane Bertha, which was slow dancing northward off the Eastern Seaboard.
A long-anticipated turn to the north seemed to steer Bertha and its 100-mph winds away from Florida, but forecasters warned that the South Carolina shore, North Carolina’s Outer Banks and other barrier islands could be in danger by Thursday or Friday.
Some strengthening of the hurricane was also possible as Bertha moved northwest out of the Bahamas and over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.
Late Wednesday, Hurricane Bertha was centered about 200 miles east of Melbourne, Fla. The storm was moving north-northwest at 14 mph. Hurricane warnings were in effect from the Cape Canaveral area in Florida to the Virginia state line.
With top winds of about 100 mph - and the strongest of those blowing out to sea - Bertha was not considered a major threat to life and property. But it was proving to be a major nuisance, and causing major financial expense, as officials of at least four Southern states ordered beachfront evacuations on sunny days at the height of the summer vacation season.
President Clinton canceled a trip to Florida Wednesday, and countless others in the Southeast had their day disrupted as they monitored Bertha’s progress while packing up, boarding up and waiting in lines for gasoline, food and supplies.
“Unbelievable, unbelievable. I’ve got people lined up at the gas pumps and had them here since about 8 this morning,” said Tracey Batchelor, a clerk in Hatteras Village, N.C.
The Navy sent ships from three ports - in Virginia, Georgia and Florida - out to sea in advance of the storm, and pilots flew jets from Patrick Air Force Base, just north of Melbourne, inland for safety.
For two days forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami have been predicting that Bertha would run into a cold front and turn to the north, away from the U.S. shore. But as the storm swirled up the eastern edge of the Bahamas and neared the United States, that turn was slow in coming.
By late afternoon Wednesday, with the eye of broad-beamed Bertha about 250 miles east of Palm Beach, Fla., hurricane center deputy director Jerry Jarrell announced: “It looks like it’s made the turn now.”
Well before Bertha showed signs of changing direction, however, emergency planners decided they could wait no longer. As hurricane warnings were hoisted up the East Coast, local officials ordered evacuations of areas most vulnerable to winds and storm surge.