After days of dread and nail-biting nights-after the largest peacetime evacuation in U.S. history-Hurricane Floyd finally crashed ashore at Cape Fear, N.C., at 3 a.m. Thursday, still packing sustained winds of more than 100 mph.
Once regarded by hurricane experts as "a perfect storm," Floyd wobbled, then weakened as it moved over cooler waters churned up just days earlier by Hurricane Dennis. Predictions of coastal catastrophes mostly failed to pan out as Floyd bypassed the beaches of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.
Still, most coastal residents, awed by the sheer size of the storm, were not home to celebrate Floyd's relatively meek arrival. Millions had evacuated throughout the Southeast, leaving Floyd to batter abandoned towns.
With so many people out of harm's way, officials expected the human casualties from Hurricane Floyd to be low. By early Thursday, just two deaths had been attributed to the storm: One driver was killed when his car hydroplaned out of control on a rain-slick highway. Floodwaters swept away another person, who was presumed dead.
The death toll could have been much worse. Floyd spawned a twister that flattened one shelter in North Carolina, but providentially, no one had chosen to stay there.
In Myrtle Beach, S.C., John Gregory and seven other members of Calvary Bible Church huddled in the cafeteria of the Christian school as the storm passed by. Though the church campus lies within a half mile of the mandatory evacuation zone, Mr. Gregory said he was determined to stay put. "I've always tried to stay and take care of things-run the generators when the power goes out, catch the leaks, that kind of thing."
In Cape Fear, N.C., Robert Hodges, pastor of the Cape Fear Baptist Church, also chose not to evacuate-though it wasn't a foregone conclusion. "If this had stayed at a strong Category 4, we'd have probably left town. Instead, we've boarded up and we're holding on. We're just going to kind of ride it out now," he said at 11 p.m. Wednesday, as the storm bore down on his little town.
"The Lord's taken care of us before," he added. "We've been through five of these in three years, so we sort of know what to expect. There are times I'd rather be almost anywhere in the world than the coast of North Carolina. But this is the vineyard that God has planted us in, so it's just something you have to live with."
By the first light of day, Pastor Hodges was tired but relieved. His roof had lost some shingles, and his yard was littered with branches-nothing he couldn't quickly clean up. Still, he said, it had been a frightening couple of hours. "I got up about 2:00 and watched it. For the next three hours it raged.... I went out during the eye. It pretty much passed right over us. It was very calm. Just about the time we came back in, the second half started-first just some light rain, then the wind picked up again.... It was an amazing thing. My wife and I were sitting watching through our kitchen window last night, and I just thought about the awesome power of God."
That power was evident in more than just the wind itself. Water damage could prove to be the storm's lasting legacy. Wilmington, N.C., reported 19 inches of rain, while Myrtle Beach received nearly two feet. Charleston officials reported unprecedented flooding there.
As Floyd hit the beach, a foot-high wall of water that stretched for miles surged across low-lying barrier islands, swelling inland rivers and submerging city streets. Water stood waist-deep on some sections of I-95, the main artery through central North Carolina. In Greenville, a dam collapsed, flooding a nearby subdivision.
Up and down the East Coast, the picture was much the same. Floyd's far-reaching rain bands stretched into Canada's maritime provinces, bringing high winds and flash floods. Both New York and Boston were under tropical storm warnings, with winds up to 40 mph and five inches of rain expected.
Still, given the 150-mph winds that had flattened the Bahamas just hours before, most Americans along the East Coast realized it could have been much worse. "God has been good to us," NASA administrator Dan Goldin told CNN. The space agency had feared hundreds of millions of dollars in damage at its Florida launch site, but the highest winds stayed well east of Cape Canaveral. "We look like we dodged a bullet."