CAROLINA BEACH, N.C. (Reuters) - As Hurricane Florence bent trees and began to peel away part of his neighbor’s roof late on Thursday night, E.J. Griffin wondered if he had made a mistake by staying at his house in Carolina Beach in defiance of a mandatory evacuation order.
“There were a couple of points when I was kind of questioning my decisions in life,” he said on Friday after a harrowing night of whipping winds and soaking rain as Florence bullied across the North Carolina coast. “But we made the decision, and now we just got to ride it out.”
State officials spent most of the week issuing increasingly dire warnings to people about the need to flee their homes in the face of Florence’s fury. Residents cannot be forced to follow evacuation orders.
“Don’t risk your life riding out a monster,” Governor Roy Cooper pleaded on Wednesday evening, as the storm neared the coast.
But some hardy - or foolhardy - residents elected to stay, gambling that the storm would fail to deliver on the worst fears of forecasters. As of Friday morning, many of those holdouts appeared to have won that bet, with a handful of exceptions.
In New Bern, on the Neuse River, more than 100 people had to be saved from floods, and the downtown area was underwater. Officials warned the weakened storm would still bring life-threatening flooding to huge swaths of the state over the next couple of days.
“We’ve lucked out so far,” said Cory Summer, 47, a 25-year resident of Carolina Beach, a shore town on a peninsula south of Wilmington, wedged between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic. It was virtually destroyed by Hurricane Hazel more than 50 years ago.
Like many other holdouts, Summer said he had weathered numerous hurricanes in his house, evacuating only one time, for Hurricane Fran in 1996.
He had bags packed just in case but decided to stay put on Wednesday, when forecasters downgraded the storm to a Category 2 hurricane.
David Cain, who lives in Sea Breeze, just north of Carolina Beach, said he had two kayaks and life jackets on standby in case the storm’s flooding threatened his home, which sits a few hundred yards from Cape Fear River.
“Fortunately, we haven’t found anything that’s come down on the house,” he said. “I’m pretty seasoned. We’ve done about 12 hurricanes.”
Many holdouts said they were wary of leaving their houses to the mercy of the storm and then finding themselves unable to return for days, or even weeks, if flooding washes out local roads.
In Morehead City, Jim Howell, 65, said he and his wife, Betsy, have lived through about 10 hurricanes, evacuating only once. That experience involved hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic and a days-long wait for authorities to reopen the bridge that connects the mainland to Carolina Beach.
They were convinced staying was the better option, unless Florence strengthened into a Category 3 or 4 storm.
Ryland Mason, who owns a roofing business in Carolina Beach, said he wanted to stay put so he could help neighbors – he has four-wheel-drive trucks, generators and chainsaws.
“I just don’t feel like I can leave this island,” he said. “I just feel like I need to help my people. That’s the only reason we stayed.”
But the potential threats presented by Florence are not yet over. With the National Weather Service predicting the slow-moving system could drop up to eight months’ worth of rain in two or three days, the risk of flooding is still real. Storm surge is another danger.
“If the flooding comes from the storm surge, we could have problems,” said retiree Phil Auth, 76, who stayed behind on Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks, a string of barrier islands.
Tom Pahl, a commissioner in Hyde County who lives on Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks, said he slept better on Thursday night in the midst of the storm than he had the previous three, when he was debating whether to evacuate.
“It’s not true with every storm, but in this particular case, the anticipation was more agonizing than the storm itself,” he said.
Kathleen O’Neal, 69, was also feeling good about her decision to sit tight on Ocracoke Island, having weathered more than 30 hurricanes in the past.
She said the hurricane had passed by with little incident, though the howling wind kept her up much of the night and the power went out.
“We made out very well here,” she said.
Reporting by Ernest Schneyer in Carolina Beach, North Carolina and Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter and Joseph Ax in New York; Writing by Joseph Ax, Editing by Nick Zieminski