Tropical storm could bring heavy rains, tropical storm-force winds to central North Carolina starting late Monday

A westerly hitch in the projected path of Tropical Storm Isaias has prompted North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper to warn residents along the state’s Interstate 95 corridor to expect up to 7 inches of rain along with winds strong enough to bring down trees and cause power outages.


That could bring an increased risk of flash flooding and riverine flooding, especially in and around the Neuse and Tar river basins.


"We know many of our communities along our I-95 corridor have had issues with that in the past," Cooper said Sunday afternoon.


The tropical storm, which weakened slightly overnight Saturday, spent Sunday just off Florida pounding the state’s Atlantic coast with heavy rains and wind gusts up to 65 mph as it slowly tracked north.


According to the National Hurricane Center, the storm is expected to stay offshore and maintain its current strength and speed as it begins its slow slog north toward the Carolinas. Isaias is expected to be off Georgia early Monday morning, bringing up to 3 inches of rain to coastal areas, and to reach South Carolina by mid-day.


What’s new for the Carolinas?


The National Hurricane Center has issued a tropical storm warning for all of the South Carolina coast and as far north as Surf City in North Carolina, with tropical-storm-force winds likely arriving Monday night.


A tropical storm watch has been issued from Surf City to Duck, including the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds.


A flash flood watch also is in effect for the entire region.


Will the storm make landfall in the Carolinas?


While officials warn that there’s still plenty of time for the storm to shift, the models appear to be coalescing around a path showing the storm making landfall in South Carolina near Georgetown late Monday. Isaias would then run roughly north, following the I-95 corridor, toward Fayetteville and Lumberton in North Carolina.


Parts of central North Carolina could see up to 7 inches of rain through mid-Tuesday, with areas to the east and west seeing 2-4 inches.


Along the coast, beach areas could see wind gusts up to 60 mph and up to 4 feet of storm surge. Strong gusts could also be felt in inland areas.


While much of the focus on Isaias’ potential impacts has shifted to inland areas of Eastern North Carolina, Cooper made it clear Sunday that coastal residents need to remain vigilant. Coastal impacts could include beach erosion, heavy surf, rip currents, tropical storm-force strength winds and power outages -- all of which could be exacerbated if the storm’s track shifts back toward the coast.


"We are ready for this both ways," the governor said of the state’s emergency preparations.


Will this storm be a big deal?


Tropical Storm Isaias isn’t as big or bad as Hurricane Matthew or Hurricane Florence, each of which caused extensive flooding across much of Eastern North Carolina. It also isn’t a physically large storm, and is projected to move through the area quickly.


But Isaias still holds the potential to cause flooding woes in inland areas and erosion problems along the coat. Power outages, downed trees, and hazardous marine and beach conditions, especially the increased risk of rip currents, also are likely.


Then there’s the uncertainty of dealing with a hurricane amid a pandemic, which is adding a new challenge to state and local emergency officials as they plan for Isaias’ arrival.


Officials, including Cooper, have made it abundantly clear that while shelters will be opened as needed, residents who do evacuate should see them as an option of last resort and seek alternative places – such as with friends and family or at a hotel – to hunker down until the storm has passed.


Evacuations already have been ordered on Ocracoke Island, a vulnerable island on the southern Outer Banks that was battered by Hurricane Dorian in September 2019. The last state ferry will leave Ocracoke at 10:30 a.m. Monday, said Eric Boyette, head of the N.C. Department of Transportation (DOT).


Two Brunswick County beach towns, Holden Beach and Ocean Isle Beach, also have implemented evacuation orders for non-residents.


The governor also has activated 150 members of the N.C. National Guard to help with hurricane preparations, and nearly 100 swift-water rescue personnel have been relocated from Western to Eastern North Carolina in anticipation of heavy rains and potential flooding woes.


Reporter Gareth McGrath can be contacted at GMcGrath@Gannett.com.