OPERATION HURRICANE: Isaias near hurricane strength as it crawls toward Carolinas

By SARAH BLAKE MORGAN, The Associated Press

UPDATED LOCAL ISAIAS TRACKER FROM WPRO’S EXCLUSIVE ACCUWEATHER HERE.

NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (AP) — Isaias was forecast to strike land as a minimal hurricane on Monday in the Carolinas, where coastal residents braced for possible storm surge and flooding rains.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane warning from South Santee River, South Carolina, to Surf City, North Carolina. A tropical storm warning was extended northward up the U.S. East Coast all the way to mouth of the Merrimack River in New Hampshire.

Isaias was still a tropical storm at 2 p.m. EDT with maximum sustained winds of 70 mph (110 kph), but it was expected to strengthen into a Category 1 hurricane later Monday, with winds of 74 mph (119 kph) or more.

“We are forecasting it to become a hurricane before it reaches the coast this evening,” senior hurricane specialist Daniel Brown said. “It’s forecast to produce a dangerous storm surge, of 3 to 5 feet (0.9 to 1.5 meters) in portions of North and South Carolina.”

Isaias — pronounced ees-ah-EE-ahs — could bring heavy rains, too — up to 8 inches in spots as it moves up the coast, Brown said.

“All those rains could produce flash flooding across portions of eastern Carolinas and mid-Atlantic, and even in the northeast U.S.,” he said.

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. The center of Isaias remained well offshore as it passed Georgia’s coast on Monday.

Authorities were getting ready in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, ordering swimmers out of the water to avoid rough surf and strong rip currents. Still, many people were out enjoying the beach, walking dogs and getting their feet wet under overcast skies.

“We’re from Michigan, so we get snow and go through it all,” Aliyah Owens, who arrived in Myrtle Beach for a summer vacation Sunday, told WTBW-TV. “A little water isn’t going to hurt.”

The storm was centered about 180 miles (290 kilometers) to the south-southwest of Myrtle Beach at 2 p.m., though conditions were expected to worsen as Isaias picked up speed and marched northward.

On Pawleys Island, southwest of Myrtle Beach, Terrie Wilson Heffner moved outdoor furniture and potted plants against her house and kept her TV tuned to weather reports. Otherwise, she wasn’t too worried about the approaching storm. A coastal South Carolina resident since 1981, when Hurricane Hugo destroyed her parents’ home, Heffner said she doesn’t leave except for major storms.

“They don’t really scare me,” Heffner said, “but I have great respect for them.”

Officials in frequently flooded Charleston, South Carolina, handed out sandbags and opened parking garages so residents on the low-lying peninsula that includes downtown could stow their cars above ground.

Though the center of Isaias was expected to pass offshore of Charleston Monday evening, National Weather Service meteorologists said a major flood was possible if rainfall is heavy when the high tide arrives at about 9 p.m.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg told a news conference he didn’t plan a curfew, though city offices were closing early. He asked residents to stay home after 6 p.m. when winds are predicted to increase above 40 mph (64 kph) and flooding could be at its worst.

“It’s a great night, as long as your power is up, to watch a movie or read a book,” Tecklenburg said. “Just chill out this evening. Stay home and stay safe.”

North Carolina’s ferry operators were wrapping up evacuations of tourists and residents from Ocracoke Island. The ferry division tweeted Sunday that its vessels had carried 3,335 people and 1,580 vehicles off of Ocracoke, which is reachable only by plane or boat. Officials on North Carolina’s Outer Banks were taking no chances after taking a beating less than a year ago from Hurricane Dorian.

Morgan Stewart said many residents evacuating from the Outer Banks had come into the store where she works in the inland community of Kinston to buy tarps, batteries, flashlights and other supplies.

“You can tell they’re worried,” said Stewart, who saw cars parked on higher ground over the weekend as she secured her boat at a marina.

Since forming last week, Isaias has been stuck between competing forces trying to kill it 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. Then strong winds at higher levels essentially tried to decapitate it. Isaias might have dissipated by now, McNoldy said, if not for the warm water fueling the storm.

Isaiah’s passage is particularly unwelcome to authorities already dealing with surging coronavirus caseloads. The storm brought heavy rain and flooding to Florida, where authorities closed outdoor virus testing sights along with beaches and parks after lashing 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 has a voluntary evacuation order for people living in homes that can’t withstand dangerous winds, said emergency management spokeswoman Lisa De La Rionda.

Isaias was blamed for two deaths as it uprooted trees, destroyed crops and homes and caused widespread flooding and small landslides in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Then it snapped trees and knocked out power Saturday in the Bahamas, where shelters were opened on Abaco island to help people still living in temporary structures since Dorian devastated the area, killing at least 70 people in September 2019.

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Associated Press reporters Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, Jeffrey Collins and Michelle Liu in Columbia, South Carolina, Sophia Tulp in Atlanta and AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Maryland contributed.