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October 1998

The Bonnie Chronicles

Bonnie left this McDonald's sign in CarolinaBeach, North Carolina, looking a little ragged. (Photo by Rich Cianflone.)

Hurricane Bonnie, the strongest of the early 1998 Atlantic season, teased the southeast U.S. coast from Florida to Virginia for days. The borderline Category 3 storm (peak winds near 115 miles per hour) finally came ashore in eastern North Carolina on 26-27 August, weakened to a tropical storm, then reintensified to a hurricane as it moved off the Outer Banks on the evening of the 27th. Among the millions affected by Bonnie were three people with UCAR connections.

Carolina Beach, North Carolina: It was shaping up as a perfect vacation for Rich Cianflone. The NOAA meteorologist, on assignment at COMET since 1993, had planned for months to spend the last week of August with relatives at Carolina Beach, just southeast of Wilmington. Climatology was high on his list. An avid hurricane buff, Rich had flown into 170-mph Typhoon Elsie during his early-1980s stint as a tropical-cyclone forecaster with the U.S. Navy, stationed in Guam. He'd seen several more typhoons from the ground while in Guam, but nothing as strong as Bonnie.

The hurricane's arrival was perfectly timed, giving Rich several days to enjoy classic beach weather with friends and family as the storm approached. His cousin's home two miles inland was just elevated enough so that the group avoided mandatory evacuations. Yet Bonnie didn't deliver the prototypical hurricane punch many were expecting. "The eye was really nondescript--it was cloudy and foggy, and the wind would go from calm to 10 or 15 miles an hour, back and forth, for about three hours. Then the wind switched instantaneously from the northeast to the southwest while we were outside."

Later that night, Carolina Beach got the storm's tail end, which was "as bad or worse" than the forward flank, says Rich. Yet sustained winds were never much above hurricane force, and damage was relatively light. Rich got his 90 seconds of media fame the next day as he was interviewed on ABC's Good Morning America.

Above: Boarded up and abandoned, this Kitty Hawk home awaits the storm. Below: A temporary road sign conveys the obvious to vacationers fleeing the Outer Banks. (Photos by Carlye Calvin.)

Kitty Hawk, North Carolina: Bonnie interrupted the second half of Carlye Calvin's two-week vacation with family in Kitty Hawk. "We'd had ten days of beautiful, sunny weather," says the Staff Notes Monthly photographer. "It was actually pretty sunny when we evacuated. It was really hard to force myself to go, but the surf was way up and there was no swimming." During a final check of the beach, Carlye found "the dolphins were going crazy--they were leaping up in the air just like you see at Sea World. It was incredible."

Then came the real fun. "It took about six and a half hours to drive to Williamsburg, Virginia," a trip that normally takes about two hours. "It was just jam-packed traffic all the way there." Carlye and family completed their trip in the Williamsburg area, unable to return to the Outer Banks due to Bonnie's crawling pace.

Giant trees and street signs were equal prey for Hurricane Bonnie in Norfolk. (Photos by Bob Henson.)

Norfolk, Virginia: As Bonnie approached, Staff Notes Monthly writer/editor Bob Henson was visiting a friend employed at the region's National Weather Service office. By Thursday evening, Bonnie had fallen below hurricane strength, and "the NWS and the media were somewhat downplaying the storm," says Bob. But Bonnie had other plans. An intense squall wrapped around the reintensifying hurricane and whipped into the Norfolk area late Thursday. Winds exceeding 90 mph toppled century-old trees: "Every few minutes you'd see a blue-green flash from transformers popping."

By the next morning, more than half a million people in southeastern Virginia were without power and the air was filled with the buzz of chain saws chopping up felled trees. It was the region's worst tropical system since Hurricane Donna blew past in 1960. •


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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu

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