(This story was updated at 1 p.m. Eastern.)
Gov. Roy Cooper has ordered a mandatory evacuation of thousands of people from the barrier islands of North Carolina, while other areas of the coast already are evacuating.
But the evacuations are being hampered in some areas by ocean surge washing over low-lying roads, say Dare County officials.
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A hurricane watch and storm surge watch were issued Tuesday for the Carolinas coast by the National Hurricane Center, as Category 4 Hurricane Florence pushes west at 17 mph. It is expected to hit the area late Thursday or early Friday, says the center.
“Traffic leaving the island is moving slowly due to heavy traffic and ocean overwash in some areas, but all roads and bridges remain open and there are no plans for closures,” said a statement issued Monday evening by Dare County Emergency Management.
Dare County issued a mandatory evacuation order, asking everyone to leave, both permanent residents and tourists.
To the south, Craven County — a county with no oceanfront — ordered a mandatory evacuation on Tuesday, according to a news release.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Cooper ordered all of North Carolina’s barrier islands to evacuate and encouraged people in other endangered areas to leave now.
“We know this storm surge is going to be significant. People need to leave now before they can’t. People are doing a pretty good job currently. We want to make sure people understand that people should not ride Hurricane Florence out,” he said. “This storm is a monster.”
Cooper’s evacuation order could be the first time the state ordered mass evacuations, the governor’s office said on Tuesday.
In North Carolina, evacuation decisions normally are left to local governments. Many of the areas encompassed by Cooper’s order already announced their own evacuations, but some had not so far made them mandatory.
“Oak Island, for instance, had a voluntary evacuation order. That is now mandatory,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter told The News & Observer, adding that the state directive also covers unincorporated areas of the coast that may not have been under any evacuation order.
Reuters reported Monday that dunes were ruptured and surf was starting “to crash over Hatteras Island’s main highway” when residents and tourists began lining up on NC 12 to get off Hatteras Island. “Traffic was backed up for about 9 miles in places,” Outer Banks homeowner Paul Jones was quoted telling the news outlet.
Evacuees began tweeting about the traffic situation almost immediately, with J. Hart of Richmond, Virginia noting: “I want to experience new things, BUT hurricane evacuation standstill on the Outer Banks was not one of them!”
The ocean overwash seen by evacuees is the first taste of what the National Hurricane Center predicts will be potentially devastating storm surge along the Outer Banks, and adjacent Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. The hurricane center said Tuesday that “life- threatening inundation” could be on the way for the coastline over the next 48 hours.
Among the predictions: Cape Fear to Cape Lookout (including the Neuse and Pamlico rivers) could see a 6 to 12 foot of ocean surge; Cape Lookout to Ocracoke Inlet could see up to 8 feet, and areas from Ocracoke Inlet to the North Carolina/Virginia border may be covered in 5 feet of water, says the National Hurricane Center.
“The deepest water will occur along the immediate coast in areas of onshore winds, where the surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves,” said a statement from the National Hurricane Center.
Popular tourist sites along the North Carolina coast shuttered at noon Monday, including the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and Wright Brothers National Memorial, according to Dare County Emergency Management.
The school system in Dare County is closing for the rest of the week and Dare County administrative offices planned to close at 2 p.m. Tuesday and remain closed “until further notice,” said a tweet from the county.
Tourists and visitors to Hatteras Island were being asked to take all their belongings in anticipation of not being allowed back to the area any time soon, said Dare County officials.
N.C. Emergency Management is sheltering Dare County residents at Knightdale High School in Knightdale, N.C., said a Dare County press release.
South Carolina’s governor ordered a mandatory evacuation of the state’s coast, reported The State. South Carolina is predicted to be on the back side of the storm.
Staff writer Paul A. Specht contributed to this report.
Mark Price: 704-358-5245, @markprice_obs