Officials Ponder Irene Evacuations

By: AP Email
By: AP Email

MIAMI (AP) - Hurricane Irene could hit anywhere from North
Carolina to New York this weekend, leaving officials in the path of
uncertainty to make a delicate decision. Should they tell tourists
to leave during one of the last weeks of the multibillion-dollar
summer season?

Most were in a wait-and-see mode, holding out to get every dime
before the storm's path crystalizes. North Carolina's governor told
reporters not to scare people away.

"You will never endanger your tourists, but you also don't want
to over inflate the sense of urgency about the storm. And so let's
just hang on," North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said Wednesday.
At the same time she warned to "prepare for the worst."

In the Bahamas early Thursday, the head of the National
Emergency Management Agency says that at least two settlements have been devastated on the southern islands of Acklins and Crooked. Capt. Stephen Russell says an official there reports that 90
percent of the homes in the settlements have been severely damaged
or destroyed. Several hundred people live on each island. No
injuries have been reported.

They were among the first to be hit Wednesday as the hurricane
made its way up the chain. Tourists cut their vacations short and
caught the last flights out before the airport was closed.

Irene has already hit Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic,
causing landslides and flooding homes. One woman was killed.

No warnings or watches were out for North Carolina though they
were likely later Thursday. But on its Outer Banks, some tourists
heeded evacuation orders for a tiny barrier island as Irene
strengthened to a Category 3 storm, with winds of 115 mph (185 kph)
early Thursday.

Later in the day, that could intensify to a monstrous Category 4
hurricane with winds starting at 131 mph (210 kph), the National
Hurricane Center says.

"We jam-packed as much fun as we could into the remainder of
Tuesday," said Jessica Stanton Tice of Charleston, W.Va. She left
Ocracoke Island on an early-morning ferry with her husband and

"We're still going to give North Carolina our vacation
business, but we're going to Asheville" in the mountains, she

Officials said Irene could cause flooding, power outages or
worse as far north as Maine, even if the eye of the storm stays
offshore. Hurricane-force winds were expected 50 miles from the
center of the storm.

Predicting the path of such a huge storm can be tricky, but the
National Hurricane Center uses computer models to come up with a
"cone of uncertainty," a three-day forecast that has become
remarkably accurate in recent years. Forecasters are still about a
day away from the cone reaching the East Coast. A system currently
over the Great Lakes will play a large role in determining if Irene
is pushed farther to the east in the next three or four days.

The mood was calm in Virginia Beach, Va. Jimmy Capps, manager of
the Breakers Resort Inn, said the 56-room hotel is about 80 percent
booked for the weekend, despite a few cancellations.

"It just appears they're not quite sure what the storm is going
to do," Capps said. "The thing I'm amazed at now is that we
haven't had more cancellations so far. Usually when they start
mentioning the Outer Banks and Cape Lookout, which we are between, the phones light up."

In nearby Norfolk, the Navy ordered the Second Fleet to prepare
to move out to sea early Thursday to keep the ships safe from the

In New England, some beachgoers started second-guessing vacation
plans. Steven Miller, who runs a charter sport fishing company off
the coast of Rhode Island, hasn't received any cancellations, but
no one has been calling to schedule trips in the next few days,

"The hoopla beforehand could end the season," Miller said.
"Everybody yanks their boats out, everybody leaves, and then they
don't come back because it's so late in the season."

Sandbags were in demand in the Northeast to protect already
saturated grounds from flooding. Country music star Kenny Chesney
moved a Sunday concert in Foxborough, Mass., up to Friday to avoid
the storm. High school football games were also rescheduled, and
officials still hadn't decided whether to postpone Sunday's
dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National
Mall. Hundreds of thousands were expected for that event.

"Tourism depends so much on the weather, which is such an
unpredictable element," said Samantha Rich, a tourism extension
specialist at North Carolina State University. "An extremely hot
season, an extremely cold season, a hurricane - it can make or
break a season, especially for small businesses."

In North Carolina's Outer Banks, where about 300,000 visitors
come every week in the summer, tourism is the lifeblood of the
towns that dot the sandy barrier islands. Dare County beaches are
the state's top vacation destination and it ordered tourists out
beginning Thursday morning. Tourism represents about $834 million
for businesses in the county, which has 8,000 rental homes and
3,000 hotel rooms, plus campground spots.

Business owners are wary of sacrificing a weekend in August if
it's not completely necessary.

"We had that occur last year, with Earl," said Veda Peters,
co-owner of the Cypress House Inn in Kill Devil Hills. He was
referring to the hurricane that passed off to the east, bringing
little more than a night of rain and some wind gusts. "They
evacuated the county, and then Labor Day weekend was gorgeous in
the Outer Banks."

So far, the Cypress House Inn is fully booked for the coming
weekend, but Peters already is getting calls about the weather.

"If it's safe for people to be here, we want them to be here.
If it's not safe, we'll say so and we'll get you in as soon as it
is," said Lee Nettles, managing director or the Outer Banks
Visitors Bureau. "We have a peak summer season and we're in the
midst of that."

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