By SARAH BLAKE MORGAN
The Associated Press
NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Hurricane Isaias has been downgraded down to a tropical storm after making landfall near Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina, according to an official with the National Hurricane Center.
The hurricane had touched down just after 11 p.m. on Monday with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph. The storm now has maximum sustained winds of 70 miles per hour.
“Now that the center has moved further inland into east North Carolina, the winds are now coming back down, so it has been downgraded back to a tropical storm,” Robbie Berg, a hurricane specialist with the National Hurricane Center, told The Associated Press.
The weather service also said in its 4 a.m. advisory that threats of tornadoes were beginning to spread into southeastern Virginia.
The storm set off flooding and sparked five home fires in Ocean Isle Beach, Debbie Smith, the town’s Mayor, told WECT-TV. Firefighters from the town’s fire department were battling the blaze with assistance from Horry County firefighters in South Carolina, Tony Casey, a spokesperson for Horry County Fire Rescue, told The Associated Press.
About 80 miles north of Ocean Isle Beach, about 30 people were displaced due to a fire at a condominium complex in Surf City, news outlets reported. It is not clear if the fires were connected to the storm. No injuries have been reported.
The storm could continue to bring down trees and cause power outages as it moves north along the mid-Atlantic and New England coastline, Berg said.
“We don’t think there is going to be a whole lot of weakening, we still think there’s going to be very strong and gusty winds that will affect much of the mid-atlantic and the Northeast over the next day or two,” Berg said. Rainfall will continue to be a big issue, he added.
Duke Energy reported hundreds of thousands of power outages as heavy rains and winds battered areas including Wrightsville, Kure, and Carolina beaches in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Coastal shops and restaurants closed early, power began to flicker at oceanfront hotels and even the most adventurous of beachgoers abandoned the sand Monday night as newly restrengthened Hurricane Isaias sped toward the Carolinas.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center warned oceanside home dwellers to brace for storm surge up to 5 feet and up to 8 inches of rain in spots, as Isaias moved up the coast. The Carolinas weren’t the only states at risk.
“All those rains could produce flash flooding across portions of the eastern Carolinas and mid-Atlantic, and even in the northeast U.S.,” said Daniel Brown, senior hurricane specialist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center. A tropical storm warning extended all the way up to Maine, where flash flooding was possible in some areas on Wednesday.
The center also warned of possible tornadoes in North Carolina early today, and from eastern Virginia to southern New England later today.
Isaias (pronounced ees-ah-EE-ahs) was upgraded again from a tropical storm to a Category 1 hurricane Monday evening. Early today the storm, downgraded again, was centered about 25 miles northwest of Greenville, North Carolina. It was moving quickly north northeast over eastern North Carolina at 26 mph and this general motion accompanied by an increase in forward speed is expected through today.
The center will move into southeastern Virginia around daybreak, near or along the coast of mid-Atlantic states and continue across the northeastern United States later into the evening. Strong winds and heavy rainfall were expected to spread northward along the mid-Atlantic coast this morning.
The storm’s maximum sustained winds dropped from when it hit land to 75 mph with higher gusts but only a gradual weakening is anticipated.
Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 25 miles from the center, and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 125 miles. A wind gust to 64 mph was recently reported near Bogue, North Carolina.
Isaias killed two people in the Caribbean and roughed up the Bahamas but remained at sea as it brushed past Florida over the weekend, providing some welcome relief to emergency managers who had to accommodate mask-wearing evacuees in storm shelters.
Authorities in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, ordered swimmers out of the water to avoid rough surf and strong rip currents. By nightfall, power began to flicker at beachfront hotels as Isaias crossed the last bit of warm water on its path toward the U.S. mainland.
Still, on this part of the South Carolina and North Carolina coasts that has been affected to varying degrees by seven tropical storms or hurricanes since 2014, residents weren’t panicking.
“It’s just going to be a lot of wind and high tide,” said Mike Fuller, who has lived along the coast for more than a decade.
As the storm neared the shore, a gauge on a pier in Myrtle Beach recorded its third highest water level since it was set up in 1976. Only Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 pushed more salt water inland.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper warned residents on Monday that the storm could be dangerous regardless of its strength. He urged those evacuating to turn to shelters as a last resort, citing coronavirus risks and the need to operate shelters at reduced capacity to allow for social distancing.
“Whether it’s labeled a tropical storm or a hurricane, you should take this storm seriously, and make sure your family is ready,” Cooper said.
Ferry operators wrapped up evacuations from Ocracoke Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks on Monday, moving more than 3,500 people and 1,700 vehicles off the island over four days. Island officials were taking no chances after taking a beating less than a year ago from Hurricane Dorian. Evacuation orders also have been issued for Hatteras Island north of Ocracoke.
Since forming last week, Isaias has been buffeted by competing forces both trying to kill and strengthen it, said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.
“Of all the places it could be, it found the warmest water it could,” which fuels storm development, McNoldy said. “And yet it is struggling.”
That’s because dry air kept working its way into the storm at low and mid-levels, which chokes storms.
Isaias’ passage near Florida over the weekend was particularly unwelcome to authorities already dealing with surging coronavirus caseloads. The storm brought heavy rain and flooding to the state, forcing authorities to close outdoor virus testing sights, as well as beaches and parks. Officials lashed signs to palm trees so they wouldn’t blow away.
About 150 people had to keep masks on while sheltering in Palm Beach County, which had a voluntary evacuation order for people living in homes that can’t withstand dangerous winds, said emergency management spokeswoman Lisa De La Rionda.