By Wes Smith
The Orlando Sentinel
NAGS HEAD, N.C. - The leading edge of Hurricane Isabel brought whipping winds, surging waters and torrential rain to North Carolina's Outer Banks late Wednesday as the sprawling storm prompted the U.S. government to shut down the nation's capital Thursday.
Federal workers in the Washington, D.C., area were ordered to stay home Thursday as Isabel rakes across North Carolina and Virginia. The storm is predicted to bring near-hurricane-strength winds and flooding up the Potomac River and into the already rain-soaked capital region.
Amtrak has suspended rail service along the East Coast south of Washington, and airlines were considering canceling flights in and out of airports along Isabel's path.
Despite the threat of 110 mph winds when Isabel hits land Thursday, longtime residents of the Outer Banks expressed relief that the storm was finally making it to shore and the waiting was almost over.
"After listening to all the stories about this for two damn weeks, I'm just glad it'll finally be here," said Julia Scheer, 40, a resident for 27 years.
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami predicted that Isabel would have a storm surge of 7 to 11 feet and would dump a foot of rain or more in its wake. The broad storm was expected to bring heavy winds and torrential rain from Pawley's Island, S.C., to the outskirts of New York City.
Officials estimated more than 21 million Americans will feel some impact as Isabel moves from the mid-Atlantic then north to Canada by Friday afternoon.
But the full fury of the storm was likely to be felt along the Outer Banks, a thread of islands that stretches 120 miles along the North Carolina coast.
With Isabel's eye expected to make landfall somewhere near Ocracoke Island, the worst of the Category 2 storm is likely to be felt along the sandy resort strip from Cape Hatteras to Nags Head.
Nags Head has a long history of escaping nature's fiercest storms with only glancing blows.
During the devastating 1999 hurricane season, when Dennis and Floyd caused more than $6 billion in damage from ruinous flooding in eastern North Carolina's inland counties, Nags Head residents escaped with little more than stiff winds and hard rains.
"Floyd went right over the Outer Banks and kicked the butts of everybody who went inland, while we sat here on the beach cooking ribs and having a blast," said David Drumheller, 37, a Nags Head builder.
Eastern North Carolina, a largely poor and rural area, suffered severely, particularly from Floyd, which left entire communities underwater for weeks. Thousands of homes were destroyed, crop damage was extensive and the state's infrastructure of roads, bridges, water and sewage facilities was heavily damaged.
The havoc left scars - physical and psychological - throughout the region.
"We have recovered from Floyd, but it did take us a while, and we learned a lot of lessons," said Debbie Crane, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Emergency Response Team.
Still, that hurricane season is remembered as nightmarish.
Hurricane Floyd, a Category 2 storm at landfall, came on the heels of another Category 2 storm, Hurricane Dennis, which had spent several days dumping rain on eastern North Carolina.
Floyd added another 20 inches of torrential rain to rivers that had already poured over their banks, causing what officials and residents now recall as an environmental, agricultural and human tragedy of unprecedented proportions in the region.
Dozens of deaths were attributed to Floyd, "which just hovered over us for days, and 24 of them were people who drowned in their cars trying to drive in water-soaked areas," Crane said.
She noted that Floyd's victims also included seven boaters, four pedestrians and one person who drowned inside a house.
While Isabel is expected to drop comparatively less rain - between 12 and 20 inches - it will still be a ferocious storm.
"The message we are putting out today for Hurricane Isabel is that people must be ready to deal with fast moving, very deep water on roads," Crane said. "They shouldn't try to drive through them like they were puddle jumpers."
Officials expect Isabel's force will reach far from the fragile Outer Banks.
"Right now, we're thinking Isabel will track along the coast," Crane said. "But we're also expecting 50 mph winds near Raleigh, and that is not standard either."
On the Outer Banks, two factors convinced many homeowners to stay put.
First, they haven't forgotten the lesson of Floyd, which proved that inland areas can be just as vulnerable. And, second, Isabel has weakened significantly since packing 160 mph winds on Sunday as a ferocious Category 5 hurricane.
The storm is coming ashore as a still fierce but considerably less powerful Category 2 storm.
In spite of a mandatory evacuation order for 100,000 people in the region, a large number of full-time residents appeared determined to stay, officials said.
"With Floyd, a lot of people evacuated right into the area that got worst hit," said Craig Clark, deputy fire chief in Kill Devil Hills. "We've gone through the neighborhoods and checked our community. We believe that most tourists and non-homeowners have left, but we still have about 40 percent of our population here."
Workers were going door to door in some communities, asking for names and contact numbers of next of kin - a sober warning for those deciding to stay.
Even those residents who left the Outer Banks on Wednesday were reluctant to look for inland shelters.
"Our first choice was to go to Richmond (Virginia)," said Daniel Sullivan, manager of a home-remodeling store in Nags Head. "But now it looks like the storm could move inland so we might go to Virginia Beach, even though that may not be the best place either.
"If my wife wasn't pregnant and if we didn't have a 2 1/2-year-old daughter, we probably would stay."
As Sullivan spoke, wife Amy and daughter Grace inspected the plywood boards on his store windows, one of which bore a message for the rapidly approaching storm:
"Don't Make Me Dizzy Izzy. Go Away!"