Hurricane Arthur’s greatest threat may be rip currents
By Ben Brumfield
(CNN) — Canceled. Rescheduled. As Arthur, now a Category 1 hurricane, gyrates up the East Coast, beachfront Fourth of July celebrations are falling flat, and that could save lives.
The Atlantic storm graduated from a tropical storm to a hurricane early Thursday, the National Weather Service said. It’s maximum sustained wind speeds have reached 75 mph, as it grinds towards the shoreline of North Carolina.
Even if Arthur goes down in weather history as a softie of a cyclone, it may have some lethal tricks up its sleeve.
Death in the surf
After it has finished its pass of North Carolina by the end of Thursday, it could still leave a danger lurking beneath the surf: Rip currents.
Anyone in North Carolina should stay out of the water, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers warns.
“There’s no time for you to react. That’s why you can’t be there at all,” Myers said. “This is not a landfall-problem hurricane. This is a rip-current-problem hurricane,” he said.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCory agrees. He tells those who plan to hit the beaches: “Don’t put your stupid hat on” and stay out of the ocean.
“I don’t want you to put at risk not only yourself but also people who may try to help you, especially our emergency operation workers,” he told journalists.
Tropical cyclones killed six people in 2009, the National Weather Service said. All of them drowned in large waves or rip currents produced by storm surges.
The cyclones, which can spawn treacherous flows that haul victims out to sea, can be far out of sight and mind. In 2008, one storm drowned three people from half an ocean away.
Hurricane Bertha was 1,000 miles from the New Jersey shore when it generated fatal rip currents. At Ocean City, Maryland, the back-flowing water from Bertha triggered 1,500 lifeguard rescues in one week’s time.
Holiday plans spoiled
The town of Surf City, right on the Atlantic, is scrapping its Fourth of July show, which was scheduled for Thursday. It will move the party down a few weeks to mark a different occasion.
“We are going to reschedule the band and fireworks for an end of summer celebration on August 29th, 2014,” a statement on the city’s website said.
But the city also said it expects the storm’s fury to be short-lived and encourages visitors to keep their beach vacation plans. “Surf City is very much open for business,” the town said.
The holiday is an important time for business on the coast, one owner said. The income pads them, helps them stay open.
Vacationers should not understand the warm welcome as an all-clear. To avoid tragedy, they should think twice about going for a swim, experts warn.
The weather service publishes a page of the stories people tell after surviving a rip current.
Three summers ago, a surfer the National Weather Service calls “Greg” watched his wife, standing on the beach, get smaller and smaller, as a rip current swept him away.
He fought it.
“I tried to swim with the boogie board at first, but if you’ve ever tried to do that you know that won’t work,” he said.
Luckily he remembered what to do. He swam parallel to the shoreline until he was out of the current. Then he paddled for the beach. He was so exhausted when he arrived, that he collapsed onto the sand.
“I kissed the ground,” he said.
Rip currents are caused by storm surges, which push water up onto the beach.
“That volume of the water that’s coming in has to return to the sea somehow,” lifeguard Mike Taylor tells CNN affiliate WSAV.
It flows back out with mighty force but is very hard to see.
Surge and evacuation
Storm surges can also cause flooding, and Arthur is expected to push the water level two to four feet higher than normal at North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
“The surge will be accompanied by large and damaging waves,” the weather service said.
Authorities issued a mandatory evacuation order for Hatteras Island and a voluntary evacuation order for Ocracoke Island.
When a storm hits, it’s also hard to get out of the Outer Banks by car.
And traveling in the driving rain is dangerous, no matter which storm causes it. Forecasters said Arthur will dump two to four inches in most parts of the coastline and up to six inches in isolated spots.
“No lifeguard on duty,” read a sign on a pier at Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. As gulls hovered over anglers, beach goers on Wednesday listened to waves gently crashing, and the sun browned their skin.
Few seemed worried about Arthur.
“People know what to do — board up the windows,” one man told CNN affiliate WFMY. “But a Category 1 ain’t bad.”
A shirtless beachcomber in a broad-brimmed straw hat was downright adventurous about its approach.
“I’ve lived long enough to know that new experiences are always fun, so you’ve got to live them, and this might really be fun and might be scary, but we’re going to find out after a while,” he said.
Down the shore in Charleston, South Carolina, the cruise ship Carnival Fantasy made ready for a wedding out on deck on Wednesday.
After the reception, “those of us that aren’t cruising are getting off the boat and everybody else is preparing to depart,” a man in a tux with a lime green vest and bow tie told CNN affiliate WCIV.
No, said AAA spokeswoman Mary Smith. Ships can deal with such storms. “Plan on being on the inside of the ship,” she said. Staff will keep you entertained.
Birthplace of the nation
Parts of our nation’s birthplace in New England will be wet on Friday, and the annual Fourth of July Boston Pops concert is being moved up a day to Thursday.
If there’s rain, the fireworks part of the show can start, but the concert may have to go.
“The rain is a factor for the orchestra,” event organizer Rich MacDonald told CNN affiliate WCVB. “It affects the instruments and these instruments are valuable and old.”
In the nation’s capital, the weather looks cheerier for the holiday.
The slight chance of rain during the day Friday will vanish by night.
Then the “rocket’s red glare” will take to a mostly clear sky “bursting in air” over Washington’s National Mall, where the colorful, fiery blossoms will shine in the Reflecting Pool to a large live, crowd of patriots.
CNN’s Sunlen Serfaty and Paul Courson contributed to this report.
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