WILMINGTON — A life-threatening storm to flee or an awesome sight to behold? Wilmington-area residents seemed split over Irene on Friday, as curious onlookers gathered at beaches while others headed for shelters.
"This is awesome!" Mike Sanford yelled to three of his friends at Wrightsville Beach, as growing winds forced sand up the dunes and waves enveloped nearly the entire beach. The group ran into the surf up to their knees before pelting, wind-driven rains forced them back.
Sanford and his friend Garret Harms moved to Wrightsville Beach about two months ago, or "Just in time," as Harms yelled.
Irene is the second hurricane for Sanford, a New Jersey native.
"We had Floyd in 1999, but no winds like this," he said, as the group retreated from the beach.
A few miles away, Lashawn Herring and her three children were preparing to bed down for the night at Dorothy B. Johnson Elementary School, where a shelter had been set up for her and dozens of others.
"I was going to ride it out, but (then) I was thinking about safety," said Herring, 31. "I don't (want) to be worrying about a tree crushing the house or something like that. ... And, usually when storms hit, the people in the shelters get rescued faster."
As Herring detailed her worries about the house, her children, ages 4 to 7, ran around asking Red Cross volunteers to play teacher.
"They can adapt to any environment whatsoever," Herring said. "I wish I was like that."
Many businesses were closed by midafternoon, but few were boarded up. At the Tregembo Animal Park on Carolina Beach Road, with 10 acres of exotic animals such as white tigers, a hand-lettered sign on the front door read "Closed to secure the animals for the storm!"
Although no animals could be seen through the fence and no employees answered the door, what sounded like a big cat growled somewhere inside.
Carolina Beach was under a voluntary evacuation order, and those who remained said they were mostly unconcerned about the storm.
"This is nothing," said Todd Lengyeltoti, who came out to the shore to see the surf. He paused before adding, "We hope."
Lengyeltoti, an artist, moved from Miami Beach about six months ago. His house is about three blocks from the beach, up on a small rise, and Lengyeltoti said he thinks it will be OK despite the storm surge.
"Living in Miami, you were used to this sort of thing," said Lengyeltoti, who said he saw hurricanes in 2004 and 2008.
Winds were blowing stiffly by early afternoon, whipping up torrents of sand from the beach and pushing them up the dunes in fine streams. The sand stung exposed skin, covering shirts, pants and shoes in only seconds. Frothy waves were eating into the beach.
Snow's Cut Bridge, Carolina Beach's main link to land, was set to close when winds reached a sustained 45 mph, expected by early evening.
Deborah Smith, 54, came from Ohio to Carolina Beach to see her daughter, Amanda Smith. She knew the storm might hit, but decided not to cancel the trip.
"When your daughter's here, you come," said Smith. "We decided to ride it out with her and go back Saturday."
Amanda Smith, 31, has lived in Carolina Beach for about a year and a half. Irene will be her first storm. Is she worried?
"Eh," said Amanda Smith, shrugging. "I'm not worried. Whatever happens will happen."