Hurricane Dorian was pounding much of the Carolina coast with heavy rain and strong winds on Thursday, spawning small tornadoes and causing widespread power losses and flooding.
By Thursday evening, the Category 2 storm was about 45 miles from Myrtle Beach, S.C, slowly weakening as it moved up the East Coast, according to the National Hurricane Center. Though the eye of the storm has so far remained offshore, the center’s models indicate that it could make landfall on the Outer Banks of North Carolina today.
The eye does not have to make landfall for the storm to cause serious damage. Hurricane-strength winds, extending as far as 60 miles from the storm center, pummeled parts of the South Carolina coast on Thursday. At one point, the storm’s strongest winds, in the western wall of the eye, were just 10 to 15 miles offshore. Forecasters said storm surge waters could flood up to 8 feet above normal tide levels in some areas.
Dorian’s rain bands whipped cities from Savannah, Georgia, to Wilmington, N.C. Some places along the coast could receive as much as 15 inches of rain before the storm departs. Approximately 360,000 South Carolinians have evacuated from their homes. The storm knocked out power for nearly 200,000 customers in South Carolina, as well as 9,000 in North Carolina and 7,000 in Georgia.
Among the most vulnerable places was North Carolina’s easternmost county, Dare, which includes much of the Outer Banks, the 175-mile-long strip of narrow barrier islands that are accessible only by bridges, boats or planes. They are separated from the mainland United States by as much as 30 miles of open water in the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds.
Dorian’s approach had residents and vacationers scrambling to pack up their belongings Thursday afternoon. Local officials have closed schools for the rest of the week and ordered mandatory evacuations.
Dorian brought tornadoes to North Myrtle Beach and Little River, S.C., said John Quagliariello, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
Tornadoes tend to form in a hurricane’s outer bands, which are thin lines of thunderstorms that spiral into the center, said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami. Abrupt changes in wind speed create an environment for those rotating thunderstorms to become widespread, and some then drop fast-moving tornadoes.
As of early Thursday afternoon, nearly 10 inches of rain had fallen on Pawleys Island, more than 8 inches on Myrtle Beach and up to 7.5 inches in Charleston, all of which Quagliariello warned could increase the risk of flash flooding.
The Waccamaw River is expected to crest late today and into Saturday morning.
Some 441,000 people evacuated their homes ahead of Dorian, a number similar to the evacuations for Hurricane Florence last year.
By early Thursday afternoon, Gov. Henry McMaster lifted evacuation orders for three counties along the state’s southern coast — Jasper, Beaufort and Colleton — but cautioned people who live there that they might encounter power losses, downed lines and dangerous flooding upon their return.
McMaster said he was concerned about worse-than-expected rain and surge in Georgetown and Horry counties. As much as 4 feet of water flowed on Ocean Boulevard in North Myrtle Beach, he said.
“We’re still battening down the hatches,” McMaster said. “When the wind stops, we still have to deal with the water, because the water’s going to last longer.”
The wind began howling and groaning in Charleston around 2 a.m., bending and toppling trees to its will, and downing power lines.
By daybreak, it felt as if the storm had fully arrived. Streets were flooding, and local TV forecasters, urging people to remain in their homes, warned that the worst of the storm would be felt in Charleston through at least noon. Charleston County government officials ordered residents to stay off high-span bridges, given sustained winds of more than 30 mph. City government posted a running online tally of flooded and impassable streets.
“Remember, TURN AROUND, DON’T DROWN,” the Charleston Police Department posted on Twitter.
The water, however, did not get as high as authorities feared, McMaster said, describing himself as relieved.
Charleston has accrued deep hurricane experience in recent years, as well as deep scars — particularly from Hurricane Hugo, which hit the city hard in September 1989. At the time, computer storm tracking was not as sophisticated as it is today and social media did not exist. Many residents were caught unprepared as the storm toppled or blew buildings away.
Hurricane Hugo killed 35 people in South Carolina, and damaged or destroyed more than 21,000 homes statewide. According to author Brian Hicks, it also marked a turning point in Charleston history. With many older, less steady buildings damaged beyond repair, Joe Riley, the mayor at the time, saw an opportunity with so many patches of blank canvas to fill in and helped revitalize the city.
In Brunswick, a coastal county that extends from the South Carolina border to Wilmington, N.C., a tornado touched down Thursday morning in Carolina Shores. A local official said it caused no serious injuries, but it ripped the shingles and siding off some homes and punched holes in their roofs. Fences were bent, flattened, or even uprooted entirely and tossed on lawns strewed with debris.
Several other tornadoes also touched down in North Carolina, according to Gov. Roy Cooper.
Areas near Wilmington had received 9 inches of rain by Thursday afternoon, with more to come. Forecasters said tidal waters around Wilmington could rise between 4 and 7 feet above normal in some places. Many of the city’s neighborhoods along the Cape Fear River were expected to flood.
“It has only started,” Cooper said of the impact of the storm, which is expected to keep thrashing the eastern part of the state until Friday afternoon. “We have a long night ahead of us.”
Some 2,200 people awaited the storm on Thursday in 68 emergency shelters, and more may be opened. The governor said 527 National Guard troops had been activated.
Wilmington is no stranger to hurricanes. Hurricane Florence dumped rain on the city and swelled its rivers in 2018, essentially cutting it off from the rest of the state. Residents lost electricity for several days.
And residents still recall the devastation from Hurricane Matthew in 2016, which turned streets into rivers and took many residents by surprise.