Carolinas gear up for wind, flooding and evacuations

Emergency management officials are ramping up operations today, with Tropical Storm Hanna forecast to break out of its stall and dash for the Carolinas later this week as a hurricane.

Forecasters say it is too early to accurately predict Hanna's inland track across the Carolinas, but the Charlotte metro area remains a possible target of the storm as it plows northward Friday.

Hanna weakened from a hurricane to a tropical storm early Tuesday, and forecasters say strong winds blowing over the top of the system could cause further weakening over the next 24 hours, before Hanna is forecast to strengthen again. At 11 a.m., the poorly organized center of the tropical storm was in the southern Bahamas, and it was drifting west-southwest about 6 mph.

The National Hurricane Center predicts a landfall for Hanna around midday Friday, somewhere along the central South Carolina coast. At that time, the storm's top sustained winds are expected to be 90 to 95 mph.

But forecasters admit they aren't certain how strong Hanna will be, given its difficulties maintaining strength today but its path later this week over the warm Gulf Stream waters as it approaches the coast.

Stacy Stewart, a meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said this morning that Hanna will be growing stronger as it approaches land. "It is important to note that Hanna is expected to intensify," he said.

Hanna spent Labor Day in holiday mode -- moving very little. But the storm intensified, its top sustained winds increasing from 45 mph in the morning to 80 mph by evening. Then came the weakening this morning.

The storm's erratic movements over the next 24 hours will have a big role in determining where Hanna makes landfall -- and what impact it will have on the Charlotte area.

By Wednesday, weather patterns over the eastern United States and Atlantic Ocean are expected to set up a "channel," carrying Hanna northwest toward the Carolinas as it grows back into hurricane strength. Hanna's location when that channel is established will determine its future course.

By late Friday night, the center of Hanna is forecast to be somewhere in the Charlotte vicinity -- still with sustained winds of 50 mph. The exact track of the storm over the Carolinas is important, because the heaviest rain and highest tornado threat is to the north and northeast of a tropical system's center.

Regardless of the storm's exact path, it is expected to affect large parts of the Carolinas.

South Carolina's Emergency Management Division announced this morning that it is switching to 24-hour operations today. Authorities say S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford, who is in Minneapolis for the Republican National Convention, will make the decision on any possible evacuations.

Derrec Becker of the Emergency Management Division told the Associated Press this morning that there have been discussions -- but no final decision -- on possibly reversing lanes on highways leading to the coast.

North Carolina emergency management officials are scheduled to hold a conference call Tuesday afternoon and discuss preparations for the storm.

N.C. Gov. Mike Easley urged residents to get their storm preparations completed. And he said inland residents should not ignore the storm, noting the serious flooding that happened last week in the Charlotte area.

"Just last week, we saw the damage that remnants of Tropical Storm Fay brought to our state with serious flooding, especially in Cabarrus and Mecklenburg counties," Easley told the Raleigh News & Observer. "It does not take a full-fledged hurricane to create dangerous situations."

And if all this is not enough, there's more bad news. Forecasters are watching the development of Tropical Storm Ike, which is about halfway between North America and Africa. That system is expected to intensify into a strong hurricane and eventually move into the Gulf of Mexico.

Many meteorologists predict Ike eventually will curve northward, hitting the Gulf coast and possibly bringing heavy rain next week to the western Carolinas.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Gustav brought 21 Gulf Coast evacuees to the Charlotte area Sunday. The American Red Cross plans to open a shelter at Victory Christian Center in south Charlotte at noon today, anticipating more.

Leroy Carey, 32, and his 1-year-old son, Corey, were among those arriving Sunday. He lived in New Orleans' Ninth Ward three years ago; when Hurricane Katrina approached, he stayed put. He was eventually rescued from his flooded neighborhood, sent to Texas, and from there landed in Charlotte, where he didn't know a soul.

He eventually returned to New Orleans, but not before making friends in Charlotte. This time, when officials urged residents to evacuate before Gustav hit, he left behind his rental home and his job at Redfish Grill on Bourbon Street.

"This time I wasted no time. I just left," said Carey, who was staying with a friend and talking to Deronda Metz with the Salvation Army about long-term shelter. He isn't sure he'll ever go back to New Orleans: "I think I'd just do better to stay here."

Gustav weakened and veered away from New Orleans as it approached the Gulf Coast early Monday morning, averting the fears of a replay of Hurricane Katrina. But pounding waves, high wind and heavy rain still threatened massive damage to homes and businesses, raising the prospect that more people will make their way to North Carolina.

Observer staff writer Ann Doss Helms, the Raleigh News & Observer, and the Associated Press contributed.

Ready for evacuees

Charlotte's American Red Cross chapter is organizing a team to deal with possible evacuations from the Carolinas coast when Hanna hits, while preparing to help with the Gulf Coast as needed.

A caravan from Samaritan's Purse and the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team left Charlotte for the Gulf around noon. Samaritan's Purse volunteers will help with emergency repairs and clean-up – they brought two 54-foot trucks loaded with supplies – while the Billy Graham squad will provide spiritual counseling.

Six volunteer chaplains were on the road Monday, but Jack Munday, director of the rapid response team, said he has e-mailed a list of 2,800 potential reinforcements. The chaplains stayed in New Orleans from the time Katrina hit three years ago to March of this year, Munday said.

“Our hearts go out to them, because they've been through so much,” he said from the road. “We'll stay here as long as they need us.”

More than 40 volunteers from the Charlotte region will leave Wednesday to staff a mobile kitchen being set up by the N.C. Baptist Men. The crew (which includes women) will stay at least a week, said organizer Tom Butts of Hickory Grove Baptist Church. He noted that evacuees may be returning to damaged homes without electricity.

“With those folks coming back there will be a big need for food,” he said.

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