Storm as big as Texas hits coast

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A HURRICANE the size of Texas, fickle in force and direction, edged towards North Carolina yesterday, threatening the east coast of the United States with one of the biggest emergencies of the decade - or a mere tropical storm, depending on its mood.

But as winds up to 100mph began to lambast the coast of the Carolinas, the state and federal authorities were preparing for the worst. More than half a million people were evacuated from the resorts of North and South Carolina on Tuesday.

Chastened by the experience of Hurricane Fran, which killed 24 people in the same area two years ago, residents and holidaymakers were said to have needed little prompting to leave this time for Hurricane Bonnie.

While a few hardened year-round residents remained behind, determined to tough out the storm, thousands of others boarded up their houses, packed belongings, fuelled their cars and joined the slow procession of cars marshalled by police along main roads, now designated hurricane routes.

With hurricane warnings, signalled by red and black flags, in force along a 500-mile stretch of coast, some tourists were resentful about their interrupted holiday. Many, without insurance for hurricane losses, stood to lose money.

They were directed at least 50 miles inland, where it was hoped they would escape the brunt of the storm. The state authorities in North Carolina had organised emergency shelters and had already accommodated more than 16,000 people by yesterday afternoon. Such was the uncertainty about where the hurricane might land that shelters were also on standby as far south as Georgia and as far north as the Virginia coast.

It was the Carolinas, though, that were braced for the full force of the winds and water. In North Carolina the normally bustling resort of Outer Banks was eerily empty, and the authorities were cutting off water and electricity supplies as a precaution against damage and pollution.

Those choosing to remain were warned they needed to be self-sufficient, as no help could be guaranteed until the storm was past. As well as stocking up on unperishable food, candles and batteries, many had bought small generators and were prepared to retreat to cellars and bathrooms for the duration.

At midday, a last call went out from the National Guard to anyone having second thoughts to leave, while the causeways were still open and the roads clear.

The military was also taking precautions. More than 60 of the larger ships, at the Norfolk naval base in Virginia and at smaller ports in the Carolinas, were moved 300 miles out to sea to ride out the storm. They included the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and the USS Roosevelt. At Pope Air Force base in North Carolina, every plane that was "flyable" was flown to bases further inland.

The emergency effort was being co-ordinated by the federal and state authorities, who had been on emergency alert since Sunday. The headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington (Fema) was abuzz with preparations; hotlines for charitable contributions were in place. Equipment and survival supplies were placed on standby, as were search and rescue teams

Agency departments received regular briefings through the day from monitoring stations along the coast, and from military bases coordinating relief preparations.

The whole exercise is designed to render the unpredictable - a hurricane whose progress seemed to slow to a meander while its force continued to grow - as predictable as possible. Leaflets instruct people how to prepare, "even at this eleventh hour to reduce your vulnerability". The advice includes tips on how to assemble a "disaster-supplies kit, including emergency food and water, a torch, batteries, a first-aid kit, a tin-opener and essential medicines", and the need to have sufficient cash, as bank dispensers could be knocked out."

Brochures instructed on how to board up your house, secure the roof and how to tape the windows in star patterns to reduce the risk of flying glass.

The slowness of Hurricane Bonnie's progress, and uncertainty about where it would land, was complicating preparations yesterday as the time of the hurricane arrival on land was continuously put back.

Even the most militarily efficient of the Fema staff, though, appreciated the human aspect: "Think of the worry; these poor guys could be in their shelters for 18 hours, not knowing whether they have a house to go back to."