Wilmington readies for Florence

At the Emergency Operation Center in New Hanover County, government officials and emergency responders prepare for what could be a catastrophic Hurricane Florence.

WILMINGTON, N.C. — This seaside town stuck in the direct path of Hurricane Florence is bracing for a dangerous, potentially deadly swell of rising water from the area's beaches and historic riverfront. 

The surge of ocean water could top off at 13 feet above ground level in some areas, along with up to 30 inches of rain that would shatter rainfall records and almost certainly cause catastrophic flooding. 

"It's quite frightening," said Steven Pfaff, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Wilmington. 

Florence is expected to make a direct strike on Wilmington sometime Friday and, because the storm is moving slowly, could pour rain on the area through the weekend, Pfaff said. The storm is the first of this magnitude to strike Wilmington in two decades.

Recalling the worst elements of other historic storms that have struck Wilmington, Florence is something like a worst-case scenario.

Its rainfall is projected to top the 19.06 inches dropped by the infamous Hurricane Floyd in 1999. And the storm surge could be even worse than the 12 feet of rising ocean water in 1996 caused by Hurricane Fran, one of the most destructive storms in Wilmington's history.

New Hanover County starting Tuesday ordered mandatory evacuations along the area's coast. The University of North Carolina Wilmington also ordered its students and faculty to leave.

As the winds picked up late Thursday morning, a few pubs were still open downtown.

A couple dozen gathered at the Barbary Coast dive on Front Street. You could smell liquor and cigarette smoke from the street. A lone beagle stared out the bar's open front door, frowning.

At the century-old Murchison building near Chestnut Street, owner Brian Ballard said he was going to ride out the storm at his Pour Taproom.

He points to the building's old bank vault, secured by three inches of hardened steel. Inside, he has a cot for himself and a cage for Finley, his Russian hamster.

"I figured the safest place in Wilmington is a safe," he said.

Others took a walk by the Cape River. As Florence began to spit rain past noon, several gulls loomed over the water in an eerie swoop.

The river's rising tide rapped the banks of Riverfront Park.

By 4 p.m. the winds had picked up at the abandoned marinas near Wrightsville Beach outside Wilmington. The gusts rocked tall blades of sea grass. Boat owners, apparently all gone, left their vessels tied up.

A crowd gathered near the empty Dockside restaurant as the rain spitting from gray clouds turned to showers.

The bar was closed, so people brought their own packs of Modelo and Bud Light.

They watched the bay water rise nearly overtop the docks of the finger piers. A few birds chirped from nearby trees, but didn’t leave their nests.

Expecting a direct hit, the city on Wednesday closed its lone bridge to the beach. By Thursday evening’s wind and rain, it was clear that Florence had readied its siege.

This story will be updated

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Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.