Before Thursday, Jeff Harvey, the Atlantic Beach police chief, could not remember the worst storm he’d experienced during his 18 years with the force. Prompted to think about it while waves battered the Oceanana Pier not far from where he stood, Harvey had to pause.
After a moment, he said he thought the worst he’d seen was “two hurricanes ago.”
“I think it was Arthur,” he said. “And that was more of a wind-type thing.”
Chances are, Harvey will not soon forget the name of Hurricane Florence. Its outer bands arrived here on Thursday morning, and its wind and rain quickly began to punish this part of the North Carolina coast with a slow-moving, relentless onslaught. This part of the North Carolina coast, farther east than Wilmington and other points to the south, received Florence’s first blow. It was fierce.
Even before sunrise here, ominous waves crashed to the shore. By 10 a.m., the end of the Oceanana Pier had long been swaying, rocking back and forth a few feet each way, every time a powerful wave came crashing through it. Gusts of wind were powerful enough to make sitting in a parked car feel like riding through turbulence in an airplane.
The good news for Atlantic Beach on Thursday, if there was any, is that few people were around to experience Florence’s wrath, which
perhaps arrived earlier than expected. The primary road through town was mostly empty, except for police cars and emergency vehicles that appeared to be on patrol. On the side streets, inside of residential areas, there were few signs that anyone had decided to stay behind to wait the storm out.
“I do know it was a high volume of people leaving this town, I would say, comparable to most storms,” said Harvey, the police chief. “But they really did heed the warnings. The National Weather Service. The Carteret County Emergency Services really did a good job of getting the word out, and stressing that people need to leave the area.”
And so they left. Around noon on Thursday, the only people near the Oceanana Pier were journalists, including a local television reporter, a crew from a national cable news outlet and a photographer who worked with a wire service. The photographer aimed a long lens in the direction of the pier, ready to capture the moment if part of it disappeared into the water.
A little after 5 p.m., though, the pier still held strong while the assault continued. Based on the forecast, some might have assumed that conditions wouldn’t deteriorate on Thursday until later in the day. In fact, conditions were bad enough in the early afternoon that local police and the state highway patrol, had abandoned their post at the bridge that carries traffic into Atlantic Beach.
Harvey said that authorities had decided to close that bridge to incoming traffic, and that law enforcement officials would block
vehicles from crossing the bridge. A little after 2 p.m., though, the bridge was empty, and there was no one there to stop anyone who might dare cross it on the way to the beach.
“I think they pulled them for safety reasons,” Richard Porter, the mayor pro-tem of Atlantic Beach, said on Thursday afternoon.
He’d been in touch with local authorities throughout the afternoon about any potential damage, or flooding. Approaching the late afternoon, he said he hadn’t heard of anything major. Then again, he knew, too, that Hurricane Florence was still arriving, and that the
worst was undoubtedly yet to come.
As the afternoon began to turn into evening, some of the worst began to show itself. The wind howled, blowing sheets of rain sideways.
Street signs leaned in one direction, straining against the force to stay upright. All the while a steady, pouring rain fell, and that was expected to continue for the entirety of Friday.
Harvey, the police chief, remembered the wind of Hurricane Arthur. Now he worried not about wind, but water, he said, “and the uncertainty of how much water we’re going to get in the town, and what is that going to do for our capabilities, and recovery.”
Some of the forecasts called for a storm surge of nine to 16 feet, and Harvey wondered where all of that water would collect. If the storm surge was really that bad, he said, it could mean that parts of his town could be under three feet of water, even well removed from the ocean.
“With water being everywhere,” he said, “it’s got to go somewhere.”
By Thursday night, the water kept on accumulating. It had been nearly for an entire day, and the fiercest part off the storm had yet to arrive.