As Florence draws near, historic Wilmington, N.C., puts on brave face

A man walks past boarded-up storefronts ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Florence in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina, U.S., September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Ernest Scheyder

WILMINGTON, N.C. (Reuters) - From a hipster bar to a Waffle House, from a bodega to a deli, a few pockets of life remained in Wilmington's historic downtown on Wednesday, welcoming patrons for a last beer and a bite as the threat of Hurricane Florence loomed large.

But the brave face belied a larger concern about some of the more vulnerable buildings in Wilmington's eight historic districts, part of the charm that brings throngs of tourists to the North Carolina port city.

On Wednesday, with the powerful storm bearing down, much of the city was boarded up and deserted.

Even so, Brian Stubbs, 45, said he decided to support his "favourite watering hole" before any devastation hit.

"I didn't want stay at home, wait for the storm to come and stare at the walls," Stubbs said.

While some of the oldest structures are made of brick, others from the 19th century are made of wood and could be devastated in a worst-case scenario as many beachfront cottages were during the damaging Hurricane Hazel of 1954.

"Hazel was a beast that really devastated coastal areas, but no one has seen anything like Florence before," said Beth Rutledge, executive director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving historic homes.

Many of the old cottages and five-bedroom homes are made from sturdy, old-growth timber, but they may never have faced a test like Florence. Although Wednesday was deceptively sunny, the storm was due to start lashing the coastline sometime on Thursday.

The National Hurricane Center warned that Florence, with top sustained winds of 115 miles per hour (185 kph) posed a deadly threat and was capable of catastrophic flooding of rivers and low-lying areas.

Wilmington's historic downtown district lies alongside the Cape Fear River, just over the hill from the Atlantic Ocean.


Rather than fret, some residents decided to relax with a drink or two at one of the handful of establishments still open.

"There is no point in sitting at the house just freaking out waiting for Florence. I'd rather come here and have a beer," said Susan Grantier, 46, from the patio of Cape Fear Wine and Beer, a bar in a 19th-century brick warehouse.

The Gourmet Market, a convenience store in the historic district, was due to stay open until 3 a.m. each day throughout the storm, offering snacks and basic supplies, owner Seymour Joseph said.

"We plan to stay open and to stay busy," said Joseph, an Ethiopian immigrant. "This store is my bread and butter, so I intend to keep it open as long as I can."

Brad Corpening, the owner of Chops Deli two blocks from the river, used his restaurant's ice machine to stockpile more than 400 pounds (180 kg) of ice in an attempt to keep ham, roast beef and cheese from spoiling should the electricity go out.

"I'm not approaching Florence from fear or panic," said Corpening, 35, a Wilmington native whose Fu Manchu-style mustache adorns the restaurant's logo. "It's going to happen. We just need to figure out how to make it through."

The historic district is also home to a Waffle House, a chain of diners known for staying open during hurricanes. Manager Shayne Culver said the location had no plans to close, although it will be offering a limited menu of 15 items for the duration of the storm.

"We're Waffle House," Culver said. "We're not closing."

(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Peter Cooney)


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