MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Hurricane Dorian spawned damaging tornadoes and flooded low-lying communities in the Carolinas on Thursday, in what officials hope will be the closing chapter of a storm that devastated the Bahamas and has panicked East Coast residents for the past 10 days.
The center of the storm, which weakened to a Category 2 on Thursday, crept northward just offshore for most of Thursday, sticking largely to its forecasted track, as it delivered heavy rain and hurricane-force wind gusts to Charleston and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. Ocean water poured over sand dunes in some communities, but officials cautioned it could take until Friday to assess the damage.
As it whipped up the coast, Dorian’s final blow was still aiming for North Carolina, and forecasters warned it could make landfall Friday near the Outer Banks. The trajectory was expected to produce what the National Hurricane Center called life-threatening storm surge in the Outer Banks, where four to seven feet of water could wash across the barrier island from two directions.
“This will not be a brush by,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, warned residents on Thursday. “Whether it comes to shore or not, the eye of the storm will be close enough to cause extensive damage to North Carolina.”
Even as officials warily eyed the possible effects of Dorian in the United States, federal officials announced Thursday that is marshaling additional resources for the Bahamas, where the death toll continues to climb. The U.S. Agency for International Development announced it will send “shelter materials” for 35,000 people there.
In the Carolinas, state and local officials said they hoped residents had heeded days of warnings about Dorian’s expected arrival as high winds snapped tree branches and several feet of water flooded many streets in the historic district of Charleston, South Carolina, on Thursday.
The center of the storm passed the city before high tide, allowing the winds to change direction in time to avoid the kind of devastating flooding that had been feared. According to the National Weather Service, the waters in Charleston Harbor peaked early Thursday at 7.5 feet, about three feet lower than initial projections.
But in Myrtle Beach, the storm brought frequent alerts about possible flash floods and tornadoes. At least two tornadoes touched down in the North Myrtle Beach area, and strong winds felled trees and knocked out signs. Thousands along South Carolina’s Grand Strand lost power.
Statewide, nearly 150,000 South Carolina residents were without power on Thursday, including 100,000 customers in Charleston, according to Dominion Energy.
“It’s worse than I thought it’d be,” said Peter McGlaughlin, who fled his beachside residence days ago. “This one is much closer to us than any I’ve ever seen. It appears to be making a beeline for Myrtle Beach.”
The area received more rain than expected, said Mark Kruea, public information officer for Myrtle Beach, which could lead to more flooding, especially when paired with the storm surge, which was pushing the Waccamaw and Little Pee Dee rivers over their banks.
But the severity of the flooding will be “nothing to compare with” Hurricane Florence, Kruea said, which flooded parts of North and South Carolina last year. Florence moved ashore from the east and brought rainbands that stalled over eastern North Carolina for several days.
With vivid memories of that storm on residents’ minds, people in New Bern, N.C., put sandbags around homes and businesses and moved vehicles to higher ground in preparation for Dorian’s arrival. In some low-lying communities, residents are still living in trailers after Florence damaged or destroyed their homes.
Long before the main effects of Dorian arrived, residents in eastern North Carolina were dealing with tornadoes. It’s common for hurricanes to spin up weak tornadoes, but Dorian appeared to produce especially large and violent twisters — some of which started as waterspouts that were pushed ashore during gripping television news coverage of the storm.
In Emerald Isle, N.C., several buildings and businesses were ripped apart as a tornado briefly slashed across a small water park and a park where people stored mobile homes, sending debris flying across the highway. No injuries were reported.
Carol Hodge, 52, stood over what remained of her recreational vehicle, the smoke detector beeping from inside the rubble. She hoped it would be the first home she could call her own after living in her parent’s house and with friends.
She wasn’t worried at first when she heard about the tornado, figuring it must have been closer to the water. Then she saw the footage on local television and recognized her “little, ugly” green couch lying in the middle of the street. She rushed to the island.
“This was going to be the first time I ever lived in my own place, but maybe it wasn’t meant to be,” said Hodge, a lifelong North Carolinian who planned to ride out the storm in a mobile home community in nearby Swansboro. “I don’t know what I’ll be able to do now.”
For the time being, she just was trying to salvage what she could before the downpours started: A bar stool. Shower curtain rods. She smiled at the overturned bath tub with a pained look.
“I was really looking forward to having a tub,” Hodge said. “Normally campers only let you have showers.”
North Carolina officials expect the most damage could occur in the lower Outer Banks, where Dorian could make landfall Friday.
The National Hurricane Center is forecasting a 4- to 7-foot storm surge on both Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, which could inundate the barrier island from both sides.
Richard Luettich, director of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City, noted Pamlico Sound is the largest lagoon on the East Coast, and that small changes in the storm track can mean big differences in how winds interact with its waters.
Under the current track, which shows Dorian still on the oceanside of the Outer Banks, winds from the storm will force water westward into the sound toward New Bern, North Carolina.
“What you’re going to see is an awful lot of water pushed from the northeastern part of Pamlico Sound into southwestern Pamlico Sound,” he said. “New Bern kind of gets the brunt of it. As the river narrows down, there’s kind of a funneling effect.”
If the track shifts west and Dorian passes directly over the sound, waters will be pushed directly east to west, and then west to east as the storm passes over the sound, increasing sound-side flooding on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands and mainland communities in Pamlico, Dare and Hyde Counties.
Then, as Dorian moves off the Outer Banks late Friday, it’s expected to keep lashing the lower sections of Chesapeake Bay and the Maryland beaches with tropical storm-force winds.
The National Hurricane Center even forecasts that Dorian or its remnants could make yet another landfall on Saturday evening in Nova Scotia, Canada, more than two weeks after it began its ferocious journey.
After becoming a hurricane on Aug. 28, Dorian blew past Puerto Rico, while clipping the U.S. Virgin Islands, creating fresh anxiety for residents still cleaning up from major hurricanes in 2017.
Dorian then tracked into the Bahamas, stalling for more than a day, while producing catastrophic damage and a death toll that officials are still struggling to assess.
On Wednesday, Dorian paralleled the east coasts of Florida and Georgia, eroding beaches but largely sparing communities from structural damage. Six people died in Florida either preparing for the storm or evacuating from coastal communities, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
As evacuated Florida residents were returning home, some state leaders shifted their attention Thursday to assisting with relief efforts in the Bahamas, where officials raised the number of confirmed deaths to 30 but expect the toll will keep climbing. Tens of thousands of Florida residents are of Bahamian descent, and the state has long-standing cultural ties to its neighbor just 50 miles away.
In Miami, residents were overwhelming relief centers with donated food and clothing. Cruise lines were also ferrying relief workers and supplies to the islands.
In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called on the federal government “to ensure all possible resources are made available to secure the safety and protection of Bahamian citizens and to assist in post-recovery relief efforts.”
A day earlier, Rubio and Sen. Rick Scott, also a Republican from Florida, sent a letter to President Trump urging him to “suspend, certain visa requirements” for Bahamas citizens who want to visit or shelter with family in the United States.
In addition to the shelter materials, the federal government is planning to dispatch a 57-member search and rescue team to the Bahamas, along with 50,000 pounds of medical equipment.
During some catastrophic disasters overseas, U.S. presidents took the lead in helping to coordinate relief efforts. During the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, President Barack Obama pledged a $100 million U.S. relief package. After the 2004 tsunami in South Asia, President George W. Bush pledged $950 million in aid, and asked his father, former president George H.W. Bush, and former president Bill Clinton to lead a global fundraising effort.
Rubio said he’s confident that the White House is fully engaged and will do what it can to support relief efforts in the Bahamas.
“They’re still focused on the storm threat to America, and rightfully so,” said Rubio, noting the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy and U.S. Customs and Border Protection are all helping rescue efforts in the Bahamas.
Rubio added, unlike in the weeks after the Haitian earthquake, the Bahamas government remains well-positioned to take the lead in coordinating relief efforts.
“This is a catastrophic event, there is no doubt about that,” Rubio said. “But at the same time, the Bahamian government has functioning, stable government agencies ... unlike Haiti, which had some underlying issues like violence, poverty and government instability.”