Hurricane Bertha slapped Cape Fear and then battered a string of coastal towns Friday, ripping off roofs, washing away piers, flooding roads and toppling a Ferris wheel.
More than 250,000 people fled the beaches before the storm, which crashed ashore with top winds of 105 mph, drenching the coastline and spinning off tornadoes hundreds of miles inland.
The storm’s top winds weakened to 75 mph as it stalled over land late Friday. By then, more than 395,000 customers had lost power in the Carolinas and a storm surge of 7-9 feet washed out dunes on fragile barrier islands, imperiling some beachfront communities.
“Everything’s just torn apart,” said Allen Sipe, who ventured out of his house to survey damage in his neighborhood in Kure Beach, a narrow island between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic.
Sipe said at least three piers were damaged, and one neighbor’s house “looks like you hit it with a wrecking ball.” His own house, which he had boarded up, lost only a few shingles.
Bertha’s 35-mile-wide eye passed over Bald Head Island at the mouth of the Cape Fear River at midday, then marched up the coast with winds gusting up to 115 mph.
“They’re taking a battering,” said Tom Ditt of North Carolina’s Emergency Management Division. “We don’t know what the damages are yet, but they’re considerable.”
Friday afternoon, the eye passed over Camp LeJeune and the most punishing winds hit barrier islands just to the east near Morehead City, snapping telephone poles, washing out dunes and flooding roads.
Six people were injured on the huge Marine base, two of whom remained hospitalized late Friday. About 60 miles further north, a man was briefly trapped by a tree that fell through his house, and the Pamlico Queen, a dinner-pleasure boat, broke loose and struck a major bridge over the Pamlico River, shutting it down, Washington City police said.
At 11 p.m. EDT, Bertha’s center was about 100 miles southwest of Norfolk, Va., and its top sustained winds were 75, barely above the threshold for a hurricane. It was moving northeast at about 18 mph, but quickly weakening; forecasters said it would become a tropical storm long before reaching the southern Chesapeake Bay early this morning.
Earlier Friday, the storm’s center brushed past Cape Fear and slammed ashore about 5 p.m. in Wrightsville Beach, a thin strip of condos, motels and beach cottages about five miles east of Wilmington, a city of 60,000.
New Hanover County officials said Wilmington escaped serious damage, but the nearby beachfront communities were swamped with water and had scattered damage to homes, piers and businesses. At Jubilee Park in Carolina Beach south of Wilmington, a Ferris wheel toppled onto a carousel, smashing several of the ride’s horses. A train ride nearby fell onto its side.
A woman who ignored warnings to stay inside was killed Friday in a traffic accident in Kitty Hawk, the ninth death blamed on the storm.
The eye of the hurricane first hit land at Cape Fear, the same site where Hurricane Hazel, North Carolina’s most damaging storm in recent times, came ashore in 1954. Hazel barreled over Wilmington with 150-mph winds, killing 19 people and causing $136 million in damage.
Bertha was much less powerful, but emergency management officials were glad they aggressively evacuated beach areas well in advance of the storm.