Cover Story: Hurricane magnet?

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - We are tracking Hurricane Irene as she takes aim at North Carolina.

A dangerous and potentially deadly storm gaining in strength, growing in size, and headed straight for the graveyard of the Atlantic.

It's been awhile since we've done this dance.  Three years since a hurricane hit the United States.  No major destruction since 2005.  13 years since a major hurricane - a Category 3 hit the Carolinas.

But when a hurricane takes aim at the eastern seaboard, it's mostly likely to hit the North Carolina coast.  The Outer Banks.  The graveyard of the Atlantic.

Before this recent and welcome lull, think about all the monstrous storms to hit North Carolina.  Isabel in 2003.  Floyd in 1999.  Bonnie in 98.  Fran in 96.  And, of course, Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Mandatory evacuations are in effect. Several of our coastal counties have told vacationers and permanent residents to get out while the getting is good.

And Governor Bev Perdue has declared a state of emergency.

A magnet for hurricanes?

Just like it's known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic (the nickname given because of the large number of shipwrecks) North Carolina's Outer Banks also attracts hurricanes.

Kay Minick and Jean Ann Suton remember 1954, Hurricane Hazel, a Cat. 4 storm.  Where they were living - it took a direct hit.

"Water was pouring into the store it was horrible, just horrible," said Suton.

There's no such thing as a magnet for hurricanes obviously, but WBTV meteorologist Al Conklin says there's a reason the Outer Banks seem to attract tropical storms.

"It sticks out like a sore thumb," says Conklin.  "If it happens to bypass there or skirt there, the next stop is typically Cape Cod and Massachusetts."

The OBX runs 200 miles long - a string of narrow, barrier islands covering half of North Carolina's coastline.

The list of major hurricanes (Cat. 3 or higher) that have hit here over the last couple hundred years is long.

And so it doesn't surprise forecasters Irene has the Outer Banks in its cross hairs.

"We've seen this forecast a lot of times. This is a very typical pattern.. where they come in.. sorta either brush the Outer Banks or make a direct hit. We've seen this time and time again," says Conklin.

Because we haven't seen a big one like Irene in awhile (it's been 13 years since a Category 3 hit the Carolinas that was Bonnie) we may have forgotten why they like this area.

But it attracts tropical storms all the time.

Conklin says there's another reason.

"All this water in here is even greater than 80-degrees. It's got to be at least 80-82 degrees for these things to sustain themselves.. that's what fuels tropical storms warm water," he says.

And in the summer that warm water extends up to the Outer Banks - the dividing line between warm water (80 degrees or higher) and cooler Atlantic ocean.

Once Irene reaches the Outer Banks it'll likely lose some of its steam - we think.

It's expected to keep on going north following the coast to eventually reach New York and maybe even New England.

"With any hurricane although they're not human.. they're nature. They all have a personality of their own and anything can happen until the very last seconds," says Conklin.

Hurricane watches and warnings are out from North Carolina to New Jersey.

And Thursday night preparations are being made across a wide swath of the East Coast ahead of powerful Irene.  Tens of millions live in her potential path.

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