JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — Tsunami-like storm surge from Hurricane Dorian ripped through North Carolina’s Outer Banks on Friday — a towering wall of water that left residents trapped and powerless. A strong tropical storm once again exposed the vulnerabilities of the narrow barrier islands in an era of extreme weather and rising seas.
The hurricane that had swooped along the Eastern Seaboard for days made landfall at Cape Hatteras as a Category 1 storm, far weaker than when it was a Category 5 behemoth that delivered a marathon assault on the Bahamas earlier in the week.
But in this low-lying community built on a foundation of shifting sand, Dorian was still severe enough to cause an “absolute major disaster,” said Peter Vankevich, a resident of Ocracoke Island, along the southern stretch of the Outer Banks.
The hurricane wrought much of its destruction through swift and severe storm surge from Pamlico Sound, the long lagoon that separates the islands from the North Carolina mainland. Powerful winds sucked water away from the coast, then pushed it back in a massive wave onto the western sides of Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. In less than two hours, tide gauges measured a water level increase of more than seven feet — enough to submerge a home’s first-floor windows.
“The water just poured in and has continued to do so,” said Vankevich, who runs the Ocracoke Observer, the island’s main news source. “If you were out there walking around, you could have been swept away.”
By early afternoon, the storm’s eyewall had moved northwest and away from shore. It is expected to scrape by southeastern New England on Saturday, then strike parts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland before it finally spins out into the North Atlantic after a long and deadly slog across the hemisphere.
Dorian began brewing into one of the strongest hurricanes on record more than a week ago, prompting panicked preparations in Florida and north through the Carolinas. But it was the Bahamas that bore the brunt of the storm’s fury; the tempest stalled for 40 hours directly over the island chain, laying waste to much of two of its northern territories — Great Abaco and Grand Bahama. The official death toll stood at 43 on Friday night, but that is likely to be just a fraction of the total death toll, as entire communities were decimated by storm surges that topped 20 feet and winds that gusted to 220 mph.
Thousands of Bahamians made homeless by the storm are squatting in broken, abandoned homes or are scrambling for floor space in shelters without steady food and water.
When Dorian finally dislodged and swerved north Tuesday, the storm skirted the U.S. coastline, its outer edges scraping by Florida, Georgia and most of the Carolinas. In southeastern North Carolina, where many are still recovering from the devastation caused by Hurricane Florence last year, residents were relieved to escape the worst of it this time.
“When you’re looking at what’s going on in the Bahamas, and you see this massive storm heading right for you, you’re going to be getting worried,” said Tony Catullo, a Myrtle Beach, S.C., resident who spent Friday afternoon sunbathing along the shore. After days of doom-filled forecasts, the mood here was relaxed: The local country radio station was advertising live music and the “premier hurricane party.”
“We dodged a bullet here,” Catullo said.
People in Wilmington, N.C., returned home Friday morning to surf beneath clearing skies. In Onslow County, to the north, swiftwater rescuers had little work to do.
“This ain’t nothing,” said Thomas Goff, of Onslow Fire and Rescue. “I’ve seen pop-up thunderstorms do more damage.”
No serious injuries or fatalities from the hurricane have been reported in the United States, though North Carolina and Florida officials have listed other deaths that appear related to storm preparations and evacuations, including a man who fell from a ladder and people who collapsed under the stress of relocating. As of Friday morning, 75 roads were closed across North Carolina as the storm lashed the coastline — compared with the 750 road closures reported at the same time during Hurricane Florence last year.
Virginia’s Hampton Roads region experienced some limited flooding during high tide on Friday, but there was little effect from the storm’s waning winds.
William Stiles, head of Wetlands Watch, a local nonprofit focusing on sea-level rise, was out mapping flooding in Norfolk, Va., on Friday.
“This one was just weird,” he said. “It was just the water. Not the wind. Not the howling horizontal rain we normally get with a hurricane.”
The threat of flash flooding still loomed, though. And as reports of devastation emerged from the overwhelmed Outer Banks, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, noted that many people are still at risk.
Photos and video from Ocracoke showed swift-moving, white-capped water rushing through neighborhoods and spilling over window sills. Emergency officials urged people to stay indoors and move to the highest points in their homes.
Though a mandatory evacuation order had been issued for Dare County, many in the Outer Banks opted to remain in their homes. Longtime residents, who can recite the names of past hurricanes like a list of bad exes, are accustomed to weathering storms.
The beach communities — accessible only by bridge, boat or plane even in the best of weather — became all but unreachable as 90 mph winds and torrential rain battered the coastline. An estimated 800 people who did not evacuate remained stranded without power. Emergency responders were forced to wait for the weather to break before they could deliver aid and rescue victims via helicopter.
Hyde County officials helped airlift several people with medical issues and spent Friday evening canvassing neighborhoods to ensure other residents were safe. But many were waiting to leave, hoping that regular ferry service would soon be restored.
The Outer Banks have always been especially vulnerable to rough weather. The string of peninsulas and barrier islands, 200 miles long and never more than three miles wide, are the first land masses to be bombarded by water and wind coming off the Atlantic. The ocean regularly overtops dunes and washes out much of Highway 12 — the only road linking Hatteras Island and the rest of Dare County. The ferry from Hatteras to Ocracoke had to change routes after its usual run began filling in with sand. During strong storms, water will carve out new inlets and wash away acres of beach.
For years, the island chain has been slowly shifting west, toward the mainland, beaten back by the encroaching sea. Dorian clipped its southern reaches before launching eastward.
These alterations are nature’s way of redistributing the tremendous energy of the ocean, explained Kitty Hawk resident Reide Corbett, a coastal oceanographer at East Carolina University and executive director of the Coastal Studies Institute in Manteo. The term “barrier islands” refers to the way these landforms protect coastlines through their shapeshifting.
“It’s a dynamic system,” Corbett said. The resilience of the North Carolina coastline — not to mention some 30,000 year-round residents and a billion-dollar tourism industry — depend on it.
Yet climate change has pushed the system to its limits. Rising sea levels have created a higher floor for storm surge to ride on top of, producing more frequent and more catastrophic floods.
“The water levels in the ocean and the sound are changing,” Corbett said. “When you have 100 mile per hour winds blowing it up against the island, there’s no place for it to go but inundate.”
The scientist has noticed his neighbors become increasingly concerned about the fate of their islands. Efforts to “renourish” beaches with additional sand are washed away by the next storm. Rows of homes that once looked out onto the ocean have been lost to the incoming waters.
Cooper acknowledged the threat posed to his state by climate change while visiting a feeding station in Wilmington on Friday.
“We know these storms now, unfortunately, are a new normal for us. We’ve had three hurricanes in the state of North Carolina in less than three years,” he said, in a nod to Florence and 2016’s Hurricane Matthew. “We have a lot to do to become more resilient. We have a lot to do to rebuild not only stronger but smarter.”
Kitty Hawk resident John Trubich, who waited out Dorian’s downpour in the same home where he endured countless other storms, was more resigned. The future, he said, is in the hands of Mother Nature.
“The Outer Banks was made by wind and water,” he said. “Eventually, they’ll take it away.”