Isaias’ strength surprises residents, tourists as Brunswick continues hurricane cleanup

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Oak Island, Holden Beach and Ocean Isle Beach bear brunt of storm damages, and limit access to worst parts of islands to make repairs

Rick Anderson wasn’t particularly worried about Hurricane Isaias. He, his wife and his dog were at their Oak Island home Monday night. He started the sump pump when rain started to accumulate.

“It was all going fine,” he said. “And then here comes Mother Nature.”

He’s had his home on the island for 12 years, and this storm was unlike any he’d seen. Overnight, the lower level was inundated with water and mud. At some point early Tuesday morning, he started to hear his car horn.

Later, he came down to find the windshield wipers going and the passenger side window down.

That was one of two vehicles he lost that night, and he said his neighbors lost some as well. Toward the eastern end of the island, two Toyota Camrys were among the damages at the property Taylor Gray and his extended family were renting for the week. Gray said the storm surge was strong enough to deploy the airbags in the cars.

“It just wasn’t anything like what we were expecting,” he said.

The rental began on Saturday and he and his family were watching the weather updates before they arrived. Their rented house, located behind the Publix at 50th Street and East Oak Island Drive, started to sway during the storm. The family saw other cars being swept up in the water, but weren’t able to move their vehicles.

“They are now kind of wedged between two pilings,” he said. He thinks they will be towed away by Thursday.

Several tow trucks joined utility trucks and construction vehicles driving around the island on Wednesday. An evacuation order went into effect at noon for all areas west of SE 40th Street on Beach Drive, Dolphin Drive and Pelican Drive — the three roads closest to the ocean — and the side streets connecting to them.

“It’s due to the lack of services, water, sewer and electric,” said Lisa Stites, spokeswoman for Oak Island. She anticipates that the town will lift the evacuation once those services are restored.

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To the west, Ocean Isle Beach is open only to residents and contractors with island decals. The town, where Isaias came ashore late Monday night, plans to reopen to the general public at 7 a.m. Thursday, with short-term vacation rentals resuming Aug. 8.

Holden Beach is also only open to residents at the moment, and vacation rentals have stopped. On Wednesday, the town announced that most services are operational and it estimates the storm caused more than $40 million in damages.


Wednesday was a very different day than Tuesday in the Oak Island community. On the day after the storm, many people were still on the beach, or on the way there, as they walked around flooded areas and piles of debris, furniture and construction materials which were starting to collect on corners.

On Wednesday, many sections of road were still impassable, but fewer people were on the beach or walking around. The sea breeze would sometimes blow away the scent of mud, standing water and the occasional dead fish, but not often enough.

The walking around had stopped; many of those on the island now were working.

Anderson and his son, with Big Blue Restoration, were cleaning up his property ahead of the evacuation notice. They were taking down paneling below the mud line and applying spray that they hoped would help prevent mold growth.

“There’s not a lot I can do right now, without power and water,” he said.

Anderson has been through other storms, and recently completed a renovation from Hurricane Florence.

“It’s what you put up with if you want to live here,” he said.

Gray, his wife and three daughters are now at a local hotel, but they plan to finish their vacation on Oak Island. Their rental property is outside of the evacuation area and if power is restored, they may even be able to return to the beach before Saturday.

“We love the beach,” he said. “And we are here now.”

Weathering the storm in Southport

Jim McKee was 2 years old when he rode out Hurricane Camille in Newport News, Va., with his parents and a family friend in 1969. Fifty-one years later, he called that family friend on Tuesday to give him an unexpectedly grim report of weathering yet another storm with Hurricane Isaias.

“I told him it was probably the worst hurricane I’ve been through, and I’ve been through a few,” McKee said Wednesday. “It just did not play by the rules. These storms, they usually lose strength as they approach the coast, but this one got stronger. I underestimated it. I think everyone underestimated it.”

McKee lives in Southport, just a block from the waterfront, which was hammered by Isaias’ winds and storm surge. It was still closed to the public Wednesday out of concern for safety.

As he rode out the storm at home, McKee said he was surprised by just how persistent the growl of the winds was as the storm passed over.

“It was just a pounding wind that never died down,” he said. “It was like someone flipped a switch at 8 p.m. and it was on. Then, at 2 a.m., they flipped it off.”

Throughout the storm, McKee said he would venture outside just long enough to check his property on Davis Street. At one point, what he thought was rain, hitting his house like bullets, wasn’t the case.

“It was straight salt water being blown a block in from the river,” he said. “That just doesn’t happen.”

McKee is also the manager of the Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site, which he said lost just as many trees as it did during Hurricane Florence in 2018. Luckily, the site’s facilities and colonial ruins of St. Philips Church were unharmed.

With a few days between him and the storm, McKee said he is still trying to fathom how it all went down. He said he’s never seen Southport less boarded up heading into a hurricane, something he attributes to exhaustion from 2020’s other marquee events, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, he calls this “the COVID-cane.”

“The one time we get lax is the one time we get waxed,” he said.