shows large storm approaching the north carolina coast
Tropical storm Isaias is expected to re-strengthen into a hurricane before it comes ashore in North Carolina near Wilmington. Satellite image courtesy: National Hurricane Center/ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

By Anne Blythe

As Tropical Storm Isaias gets closer to North Carolina’s southeastern coastline, where it is expected to come ashore later tonight, Gov. Roy Cooper has cautioned people not to get caught up in weather semantics.

Isaias rose out of a tropical wave off the African coastline and organized into a tighter storm with gale-force winds. On July 30, Isaias became the ninth named storm of this hurricane season.

As the storm cut a path westward and northward, its winds grew to hurricane strength of 80 miles per hour. As of 2 p.m. Monday, its maximum sustained winds were at 70 miles per hour with occasional gusts as strong as 85 miles per hour.

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At some points during its approach toward the North Carolina coast, Isaias has been a hurricane. At other times its wind speed downgraded it to a tropical storm. The storm could intensify again to hurricane-level winds, forecasters say.

Hurricane warnings have been issued for Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties.

Tropical storm warnings and watches have been issued for much of eastern and central North Carolina, and utility companies, transportation officials, state troopers and swift-water rescue teams are at the ready for emergencies related to flooding and power lines toppled in high winds.

“As we’ve cautioned before, the status or category of a storm can be misleading,” Cooper said. “Whether it’s labeled a tropical storm or a hurricane, you should take this storm seriously, and make sure your family is ready. That means taking care of your pets, too.”

Curfews, storm surge and expected flooding

Weather forecasters are predicting life-threatening storm surge on beaches, particularly those south of Wilmington and the Cape Fear River.

Many counties have issued states of emergency. Some have issued curfews to keep people off the streets from late Monday afternoon through early Tuesday morning.

Ocean Isle issued a mandatory evacuation order for vacationers, renters and guests on Saturday and suggested that residents and property owners evacuate on Monday. Holden Beach also issued a voluntary evacuation directive.

shows men clad in emergency operations shirts and face coverings arrivinng on a stage
Gov. Roy Cooper (at podium) and Emergency Management director Mike Sprayberry arrive for a hurricane briefing on the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 3, ahead of Tropical Storm/ Hurricane Isaías. Screenshot courtesy: UNC TV

The Town of Sunset Beach on the state’s southern tip issued a 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew in anticipation of the storm but did not order an evacuation of vacationers.

“This storm will bring dangerous weather conditions to much of our state overnight,” said Cooper. “Heavy rains, flash floods and storm surge can quickly inundate low-lying areas.”

Tornados also are a possibility.

North Carolina has been preparing for this scenario for several months. Modelers earlier this year predicted an active hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean.

The coronavirus pandemic adds another thorny layer to preparations in a state that has seen its share of hurricanes, flooding and other weather-related disasters in recent years.

Some coastal and low-lying communities in eastern North Carolina have yet to fully rebound from those disasters. Now Isaias is threatening to bring more destructive wind and heavy rains.

Mike Sprayberry, director of Emergency Management for the state, and Cooper encourage anyone fleeing the storm or damage from it to try to stay with family and friends or at a hotel before heading to emergency shelters.

There will be shelters set up in some places.

Brunswick County opened shelters at Cedar Grove Middle School in Supply and at Town Creek Middle School in Winnabow.

Face coverings must be worn at all times, according to shelter rules, and individuals and families must stay in an assigned section of the building at all times.

People will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms before they are checked in. Anyone suspected of having the virus will be isolated either at a specially designated area of the shelter or at a medical facility.

Sprayberry also said that there are hotel rooms set aside across the state as a form of “non-congregate shelter” for those who may be sick with the coronavirus or at increased risk.

Tuesday morning will bring a clearer picture of how North Carolina fared in its first major storm during the pandemic.

As people begin to move about again after the storm passes, Cooper and his emergency management team urge drivers to turn around if water is pooled on roads or if a barricade blocks the path forward.

“As little as 18 inches can sweep a car away,” Cooper said. “We’ve lost too many lives after these storms because of people trying to drive through water.”

Ocracoke Island and several other beach communities along the northeastern barrier islands ordered evacuations and tried to thin out the tourists in the many vacation rentals. According to the Department of Transportation, about 3,500 people and about 1,700 vehicles evacuated from the island ahead of the storm.

In a 5 p.m. briefing, the National Hurricane Center said Isaias was expected to make landfall as a hurricane near Wilmington, then move up the East Coast with heavy rain and flooding.

Another big decision ahead

As many across North Carolina await Isaias and the potential damage the storm will leave in its wake, another unanswered question remains in this phase of the pandemic.

An executive order that Cooper signed several weeks ago is set to expire Friday afternoon. The order continues to shutter bars, gyms, theaters, bowling alleys and other such venues deemed to be high-risk for transmission of COVID-19.

Last week, Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the metrics and trends that her public health team monitor showed some stabilization of COVID-19 infection rates after a period of steady and sharp rise.

Cooper said Monday he likely would have an announcement on Wednesday about whether he would renew the executive order or make room for some of those riskier businesses to open.

That will be a day of looking forward as emergency teams look back on what damage, if any, North Carolina’s first big storm of the 2020 hurricane season leaves in its path.

“Now I know that North Carolinians have had to dig deep in recent months to tap into our strength and resilience during the pandemic,” Cooper said. “That hasn’t been easy, but with this storm on the way we have to dig a little deeper. Let’s keep each other safe from the wind and the water as well as from the virus.”

“As this storm arrives in just a few hours, remember the power that comes from helping one another,” Cooper added shortly after 3 p.m. “We’re all better off when we work together.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Monday afternoon:

  • 1,982 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 125,219 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,057 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with COVID-19 infections on a given day and does not represent all of the North Carolinians who may have been in the hospital throughout the course of the epidemic.
  • 105,093 people who had COVID-19 are presumed to have recovered. This weekly estimate does not denote how many of the diagnosed cases in the state are still infectious.
  • To date, 1,837,410 tests have been completed. As of July 7, all labs in the state are required to report both their positive and negative test results to the lab, so that figure includes all of the coronavirus tests performed in the state.
  • People ages 25-49 make up the largest group of cases (44 percent). While 12 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 79 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 307 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,168 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 804 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

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Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.