Tropical Storm Isaias brings flooding, strong winds and tornadoes to NC; 2 people killed

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    By Richard Stradling, Josh Shaffer, Martha Quillin, Adam Wagner and Brooke Cain
    The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
    (TNS)

    RALEIGH, N.C. — The last of Tropical Storm Isaias churned north out of eastern North Carolina on Tuesday, leaving behind the effects of strong winds, heavy rain and tornadoes from the Triangle to the coast.

    Two people were reported dead from tornadoes spawned by Isaias.

    Gov. Roy Cooper told “Good Morning America” that Isaias spawned “a number of tornadoes,” including one that hit a mobile home park in Bertie County in northeastern North Carolina. County officials said the tornado touched down in the Morning Road area of Windsor.

    Bertie County Sheriff John Holley told reporters that two bodies were found Tuesday morning. Tammy Lee, the vice chairwoman of the county board of commissioners, said the trailer park was devastated.

    “I think there were two or three trailers left standing,” Lee told The News & Observer. “Everything else was gone. These people have lost everything they owned.”

    Authorities spent part of Tuesday morning searching for a mother and two children who were reported missing, but they were found to be safe Tuesday afternoon.

    Law enforcement officers kept people out of the area. Ladrea Cherry, who lives in another mobile home park off Spruill Park Lane, several miles away, said a Facebook friend had broadcast from Morning Road earlier in the morning and that it looked like “a landfill.”

    Cherry said her phone went off with a tornado warning just before 2:30 a.m. She said she grabbed her 3-year-old son and held on to him, hoping that if anyone got hurt it would be her instead of him.

    Just in front of Cherry’s mobile home park on U.S. 17, Abrams Bar-B-Q received significant damage, with a window blown out of one side, a food truck tilted over in the parking lot and a drive-through sign twisted into a downward hook.

    Two people were saved from a flooded home in Bertie County by a swift water rescue team, according to Cooper.

    Mike Sprayberry, director of North Carolina Emergency Management, said Tuesday that meteorologists with the National Weather Service will be surveying in the next few days to confirm the suspected tornado touchdowns in Bertie County, on Bald Head Island in Brunswick County and near Menola in Hertford County.

    Cooper said in a Tuesday afternoon news conference that he had spoken to President Donald Trump and updated him on the situation in the state. The president “has pledged help,” Cooper said, adding that state officials are in contact with FEMA and other agencies.

    Nearly 370,000 homes and businesses were without power at 8 a.m., as the storm’s exit allowed power crews to get started on repairs. By 1 p.m., that number had been reduced to 242,000, more than half of them in southeast coastal counties. As of 5:30 p.m., that number was down to about 127,000.

    Emergency management director Sprayberry said the state had opened 24 shelters Monday night, and about 40 people showed up. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, state officials had urged those evacuating the coast to try to find arrangements outside of a shelter.

    “We were prepared with non-congregate sheltering, but many people heeded the advice to stay with family or friends or at a hotel,” Sprayberry said. “It wasn’t needed.”

    Isaias made landfall shortly after 11 p.m. Monday at Ocean Isle Beach and moved through North Carolina. The center of the storm roughly followed the Interstate 95 corridor, dumping large amounts of rain north and west of the center.

    On Tuesday morning, state troopers blocked access to Ocean Isle Beach, where stranded residents reported severe fires and sand washed over the roads.

    Aaron Edwards lives on the mainland side of the island and said he witnessed the early morning blaze, which many reported Tuesday to have destroyed five houses.

    “I’m not lying,” he said. “Those flames were 700 to 800 feet high. The reason the firefighters couldn’t get to them — and I’m speculating — is they were standing in four feet of water.”

    On Oak Island, the ocean surged more than two blocks over the dunes, carrying away pieces of houses and dumping a foot of sand over Beach Drive. Locals sorted through the wreckage Tuesday, pulling waterlogged cars out of sand and shoveling the new oceanfront from yards that had hosted backyard barbecues less than a day before.

    Pieces of vinyl siding 10 feet wide sat strewn across the ruined street, along with gutters and insulation ripped from the lower floors.

    “Pretty wild,” said Frank DeLorenzo, surveying the scene. “Had 100 mph winds. They lost the whole bottom floor of their house. But everybody came through OK. Just lost some stuff.”

    As Oak Island worked to clean up, town officials put a curfew in place from 6 p.m. Tuesday until 6 a.m. Wednesday.

    At 5 a.m., the center of the storm was 15 miles southeast of Roanoke Rapids and still had sustained winds of 70 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. The rain had stopped by about 7 a.m., though much of eastern North Carolina remained under a tropical storm warning for another hour because of the lingering winds.

    Isaias picked up speed overnight and was moving into Virginia at 28 mph. The storm’s quickening pace helped reduce the amount of rain it dropped on the state. Forecasters had expected 4 to 6 inches to fall along the I-95 corridor, but the total at Rocky Mount-Wilson Regional Airport was 2.4 inches since Monday afternoon.

    About 2.6 inches fell at Raleigh-Durham International Airport since Monday evening, but the total topped 4 inches elsewhere in the county, according to the National Weather Service. Between 1 and 3.4 inches fell in Orange and Durham counties.

    The state remains under an elevated threat of some minor downstream flooding later this week, Sprayberry said.

    The winds were not as strong as feared in the Triangle. The top gust of 35 mph was recorded in West Raleigh, but winds topped out at 30 mph or less elsewhere in the area.

    Forecasters say they expect the Neuse River to reach moderate flood levels at Clayton and Smithfield by Wednesday afternoon. At its peak, the Neuse is forecast to rise into Smithfield Town Commons Park and block U.S. 70 just west of the bridge.

    The storm temporarily closed 45 state-maintained roads, mostly in Brunswick and New Hanover counties, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation. By 2 p.m., most of the trees that had blocked streets and roads had been removed and all but 15 state roads had reopened. For the latest road conditions, go to drivenc.gov.

    Isaias hit North Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane, with top sustained winds of 85 mph and higher gusts. The worst of the wind and rain happened after dark, so the storm’s full impact became clearer as the sun rises.

    In downtown Wilmington late Monday, as the rain flew sideways and the wind blew stop signs off their posts, Cassandra Cruz went looking for the homeless people.

    She found her friend Elysia in a storefront on Market Street, and with the help of her 12-year-old son, she lifted the disabled and homeless woman to shelter.

    Elysia could not walk, communicate or say her age. A fellow homeless man refused to leave his alcove, smiling at the hurricane-strength winds.

    For 10 minutes, Cruz and her son pulled Elysia into a parking garage, where they propped her and her luggage against a wall with the wind howling.

    “I’ve been there,” Cruz said. “I’ve been homeless. I check on her every day.”

    She was not sure of Elysia’s age, last name or history. Only that she can be found downtown.

    As the wind tore across Wilmington, Cruz left her there against the parking garage wall, as safe as anyone outside could be.

    Headed into the weekend, it appeared Isaias would ride up the coast of North Carolina as a hurricane, prompting evacuations of Ocracoke and Hatteras islands on the Outer Banks. But the storm’s more westward track meant most of the North Carolina coast was spared.

    Early Tuesday, life was already back to normal in Carteret County, where the worst damage from the storm was the interruption of power in some areas and the upending of trash cans.

    Otherwise, most folks returned to their routines, flipping on the “OPEN” signs at places such as Four Corners restaurant in Atlantic Beach. Regulars began rolling in immediately.

    Double red flags barred entry into the surf, which was still roiling Tuesday. A handful of people walked the beach or strolled with their dogs.

    “I slept through it,” said Lisa Longerich, who was visiting a friend in Emerald Isle and was out early to walk Bugsy, a small mixed-breed dog.

    As the storm approached Monday night, Longerich said, she and her friend sipped wine and listened to the wind.

    “I actually enjoy the sound,” she said. “I find it very relaxing.”

    Cooper issued a state of emergency for Isaias on Friday, which means the state’s price gouging law is in effect, Attorney General Josh Stein said Tuesday morning. Stein said people who see tree removal companies or other contractors charging outrageous prices after the storm should call 877-5-NOSCAM.

    Meanwhile, Steve Troxler, the state agriculture commissioner, said it will probably be a day or two until his department determines the extent of agriculture damage Isaias caused in North Carolina.

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    ©2020 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

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