Image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website shows the projected path for Tropic Storm Isaias, which takes the system across much of Eastern North Carolina.

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Strengthening as it moved on onshore in Brunswick County, Hurricane Isaias dumped heavy rains from the coast to the Triangle and buffeted the Interstate 95 corridor with high winds as it moved northward overnight.

At landfall, hurricane-force winds extended 25 miles from the center of the storm and tropical-storm-force winds extended about 125 miles.

A storm surge ahead of the now-Category 1 hurricane pushed the Cape Fear River out of its banks in downtown Wilmington and gnawed at beaches in Brunswick, Pender and New Hanover counties.

Earlier in the evening, a series of tornado warnings were issued near Wilmington, and a waterspout was reported to have moved onto Bald Head Island, damaging property there. Most of Eastern North Carolina remains under a tornado watch.

The storm is not expected to weaken considerably as it passes over the eastern part of North Carolina with an unusual, winterlike jet stream configuration allowing it to sustain high winds as it travels north.

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The National Hurricane Center clocked the storm’s winds at 85 mph around landfall, and the Weather Service said the storm could move through the state packing sustained winds of 70 mph. With soils already saturated, power outage tallies began to rise through the evening.

Isaias forward motion began to accelerate late Monday, and the storm is expected to be out of the state late Tuesday morning.

Isaias is due to track northeast along the Interstate 95 corridor and through many of the low-lying regions hard hit by repeated storms and flooding in recent years. Along with tropical-storm-force winds, rainfall is predicted at 1-4 inches but with a swath near the I-95 corridor that could be as much as 7 inches.

The National Hurricane Center is warning that Eastern North Carolina could experience heavy rainfall and flash flooding and a storm surge of 3-5 feet for the Cape Fear and Neuse rivers and Pamlico Sound. Inundation prediction maps show heavy flooding possible along the Cape Fear River system in Brunswick and New Hanover counties and sound-side flooding along the Outer Banks. 

By midweek flooding is predicted along the Tar and Neuse rivers. The Tar River at Tarboro is expected to reach 21 feet by Friday, at least 2 feet above flood stage. The Neuse River is also expected to peak near Smithfield at close to major flood stage later this week. With the storm’s exact track and rainfall amounts uncertain, these forecasts are certain to shift in the coming hours and days.

Heavy rain from outlying bands started sweeping across much of the the state far from the coast, including most of the Piedmont region by midday on Monday.

While those areas are less susceptible to flooding than the low-lying coastal plains region, the Piedmont rivers flow toward the coast, so that heavy rains across the state early could compound the flooding threat to coastal communities, many of which have been repeatedly devastated from previous storms, such as Florence and Matthew in recent years.

The center of the current storm track passes through the heart of the state’s hog and poultry industry. These counties, including Duplin and Sampson, have also been among the most heavily affected by COVID-19, with infection rates far surpassing other parts of the state.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced late Sunday that the state had received a requested predisaster declaration from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, allowing the state to tap federal aid to recoup some of the costs in handling the emergency. 

In briefings over the weekend, Cooper and emergency management officials said the state had to adjust its storm response because of the COVID-19 pandemic and urged residents to seek shelter inland with friends and relatives or at a hotel rather than rely on emergency shelters in their area.

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Some local shelters have been opened, but those arriving were screened for coronavirus symptoms and could be sent to other locations set up to handle suspected cases as part of the state’s strategy for handling the dual challenge of a major storm in a pandemic. 

“If someone has symptoms, they’ll be directed to a sheltering option where they can more easily isolate or receive medial attention,” Cooper said in a briefing Sunday.

“Our state has weathered more than our fair share of storms in recent years. We know how to plan, prepare and respond when it’s over. Nothing about that has changed, but this time we’re going to have to do it with a mask on.”

Evacuations for Hatteras and Ocracoke islands ended Monday. The state ferry service announced that it had evacuated 1,700 vehicles and 3,500 people from Ocracoke on the Hatteras, Cedar Island and Swan Quarter routes.

The island was devastated by a massive storm surge during last year’s Hurricane Dorian that destroyed nearly every vehicle on the island and damaged hundreds of homes.

Ferry service will resume once the U.S. Coast Guard has verified the safety of the routes.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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