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In Wilmington, apartment complex residents hid from Dorian’s winds

Waterspout rips through Emerald Isle and destroys homes

A waterspout on the outer bands of Hurricane Dorian severely damaged Emerald Isle on the morning of Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.
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A waterspout on the outer bands of Hurricane Dorian severely damaged Emerald Isle on the morning of Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019.

As Tara Eckhardt gathered her son, dog and kitten, and rushed them into an interior bathroom around noon Thursday, her apartment building started to shake.

“As we were running in there, the whole building was shaking, so you could definitely feel it. ... You could tell the whole dynamic of the wind (changed),” Eckhardt said.

Residents believe a tornado touched down around Stephens Pointe Apartments, with several roofs missing shingles, a trailer flipped over in the parking lot and a hole gaping in the roof above the third floor of the building Eckhardt lives in. The National Weather Service issued about 20 tornado warnings throughout southeastern North Carolina between midnight and 4 p.m. Thursday.

Billy Christ and Abbey McCormick live in a Stephens Pointe building near Eckhardt. Christ and McCormick were watching WECT-TV when the warning came across, and the couple sought shelter in an interior hallway of their second-floor apartment.

McCormick said the tornado struck almost as soon as the warning was issued. The sounds of the wind made their way through the walls and the apartment started shaking, said Christ, who said there was “definitely” a tornado.

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High winds from a possible tornado spawned by Hurricane Dorian damaged buildings in the Stephens Pointe Apartment complex in northern New Hanover County on Thursday, September 5, 2019. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

“It was just a rush, not the whistling sound you hear about but you knew it wasn’t right,” Christ said. “Something was up, it was just too mad.”

In the storm’s aftermath, saplings were snapped or uprooted throughout the apartment complex, and a large limb stood to the side of one nearby road. A gutter hung from the eaves of one building, clanging whenever the wind picked up as if to emphasize the damage that had already occurred.

“We’re hoping it doesn’t strike twice in the same spot,” McCormick said.

According to a tornado warning issued at noon, radar indicated rotation in a severe thunderstorm over Porters Neck, slightly to the east of Stephens Pointe.

Eckhardt’s rush to her bathroom marked the second time Thursday morning that she grabbed her son and sought refuge in an interior space. While they waited about a half-hour before coming out, her 12-year-old son became distressed.

“He just sat there with his leg pounding and I had to keep rubbing him and telling him it was going to be OK,” Eckhardt said. “He just wanted out, he just wanted out. That was definitely the worst of it so far.”

Last year, Eckhardt moved to the building days before Hurricane Florence made landfall just miles away. She rode the storm out at her then-new apartment, living out of unpacked boxes.

As the center of Dorian drew closer, Eckhardt stood on the first floor of the building as maintenance workers tried to assess the damage. In a third-floor hallway, the roof bubbled downward where water was beginning to gather, waiting to burst through.

The potential tornado, Eckhardt said, made her question the structure would be safe for the rest of the storm.

“The building is unstable,” Eckhardt said, “I was feeling pretty good until then. Even with going through the tornado, we withstood it. Now there’s damage and the worst is yet to come.”

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High winds from a possible tornado spawned by Hurricane Dorian damaged buildings in the Stephens Pointe Apartment complex in northern New Hanover County on Thursday, September 5, 2019. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Both Eckhardt and Christ expressed worries about more tornadoes on the storm’s backside causing further damage. And as nightfall and the worst of Dorian drew nearer, Eckhardt, a longtime Wilmington resident, said it was taking on the traits of the storms she fears the most.

“I just wish it was happening during the day so you could see everything,” Eckhardt said. “It’s the night hurricanes that are the freakiest because you get too tired to really stay up, but that’s when the most damage is occurring.”

This story was produced with financial support from Report for America/GroundTruth Project, the North Carolina Community Foundation and the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. The News & Observer maintains full editorial control of the work.

Watch the ABC11 Friday morning forecast for Hurricane Dorian as it moves north to the Carolinas.

The National Weather Service posted this video from Pender County Fire Station 18 of a funnel cloud forming up around 7 a.m. on Sept. 5, 2019, as the outer band of Hurricane Dorian started hitting North Carolina.

Follow more of our reporting on Hurricane Dorian

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