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Gary Younge
Slow shore exit as Hurricane Isabel flies in

In Surf City residents woke to clear blue skies, the banging of plywood against beach house windows, and the latest radar from the Weather Channel telling them that Isabel was moving north-northwest at a fairly steady nine miles an hour - and heading straight for them.

As shops put out the last of their water, batteries and torches, and let fate take its course, there was only one question worth asking: are you staying?

Those who remained were doing so not out of bravado but because of past experience. Referring to visits by former hurricanes - Bertha, Fran and Floyd - as if they were troublesome relatives, they said they had decided it made more sense to stay put.

"It gets pretty gnarly around here at hurricane time," said Sharon Jordan at the supermarket. "But I was here for Bertha and Floyd so we know what to do, and I don't think this will be quite as bad."

Bill, a local council employee, drove from one fire hydrant to another placing markers near them so they could be found if they became buried in shifting sands. He was planning to leave town but only because of prior engagements. "I'm in a bowling league and I don't want to get trapped here and miss my game. But I don't think it's going to be as bad as Floyd."

Officials fear that many may be underestimating this hurricane, as it has moved from the maximum category five on the Saffir-Simpson scale to a strong category two.

"People still need to understand this is a very formidable hurricane," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Centre, in Miami. "Its track has been consistent."

Mr Mayfield said Floyd, only a category two storm, had caused 56 deaths and damage of up to £3bn in the US. "This storm can cause a lot of damage and loss of life."

Motels insisted that visitors staying on overnight had to sign away their rights to electricity and claims for damage. Between religion and light rock, the local radio stations gave notice of schools and colleges that would be closed and churches that had cancelled services. In the lifestyle section of the local paper there were tips on "hurricane cuisine".

But by the afternoon Isabel's only calling card, beyond the fear and the satellite images, were the huge waves pounding the 120-mile-long chain of islands that fringe the coast of North Carolina.

But even the great waves did little to impose a sense of urgency, instead testing the more adventurous surfers as they bobbed around on the sea, waiting for a crest to pose a real challenge.

"It's the best surf of the year," said Jason, from Fayetteville. "You can't just go home without at least trying it."

"Surf's up!" proclaimed one of many messages scrawled on plywood shutters on some of the islands to the north. Another said: "Issie, you put me in a tissy."

Still, most people, including Jason, seemed now to be leaving, forming a slow convoy of motor homes, SUVs, and trailers hauling boats, going inland and to higher ground. More than 100,000 people who live or were taking a holiday on the shoreline were handed evacuation orders. The thought was that the full force of the hurricane would not strike inland until tomorrow afternoon, although heavy rain has already been pounding the outer banks.

Isabel was projected to move next through Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland, and as far as New York.

Governors of North Carolina and Maryland joined their counterpart in Virginia in declaring a state of emergency. With winds extending 145 miles from the storm's centre, the census bureau said it could affect 50 million people across 13 American states.

"People recognise this is the real deal. This is, in terms of predictions, perhaps the worst storm we've seen in decades," said Virginia's governor, Mark Warner.

Officials in Pennsylvania and Maryland were also concerned about the possibility of flooding after a wet summer.

"There is just nowhere to put the water," declared Ed McDonough, a spokesman for the Maryland emergency management agency.

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