OAK ISLAND — With the power still running, Kurt Kulpa was watching a movie with his wife when they noticed the first car float by. It was the first of four that night.
“That one went pretty quick. It just skirted right through,” Kulpa said of the red Dodge Charger, which eventually ended up lodged in debris behind the Publix more than a quarter-mile down the road. “The other ones hung up under landscaping here. I thought they were going to take out the front pilings.”
Sometime late Monday night, a six-to-seven foot storm surge had carved into a public access point less than a block away from Kulpa’s Oak Island home, turning East Beach Drive into a river.
High tide fell at around 8:20 p.m. and the moon was full. Hurricane Isaias made landfall a couple beach towns west by 11:10 p.m., bringing nearly 90 mph winds.
The surge turned dozens of 1.5-ton vehicles into buoys, crushing the underbelly of homes across the 11-mile island. The island’s two outermost roads that run parallel to the Atlantic were either packed full with sand, like a scene out of Mad Max, or filled with saltwater.
“I was so nervous that I couldn’t — I really couldn’t function,” Virginia vacationer Shannon Tilley, who’s staying on the west end of the island, said Tuesday morning. “I’m still nervous from it.”
Neighbors said a car’s alarm system, triggered by being bumped around in the surge, sparked a fire that ultimately claimed a home and four cars near SE 55th St. Though property damage was extensive across the island, there were no reported deaths or critical injuries.
The next day, scores of vacationers were left powerless, carless, and stranded. Reversing, beeping operations vehicles filled in the sand where the river flowed. A seemingly never-ending stream of helicopters flew by once every ten to fifteen minutes.
Despite the wreckage, the smell of sunscreen still filled the air. Families plopped beach chairs in front of rentals Tuesday morning, determined to enjoy their stay.
Late Tuesday, the town issued a mandatory evacuation notice over nearly two-thirds of beachfront homes and a 6 p.m. curfew for the entire island.
Locals said they weren’t prepared for the water to rise as high as it did and that Isaias caused more damage to the island than any storm in recent memory.
Living two blocks inland, retired firefighter Kevin Kirby had his friend’s defunct, waterlogged car in his driveway. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen the water come up,” he said.
Kirby stayed up until 3 a.m., late enough to watch the house near 55th Street burn from afar. “This was nothing but a lake. I couldn’t walk out here. It was too deep,” he said. Though Isaias brought worse-than-usual flooding conditions to the island, Kirby pointed out that his road floods in non-storm events. The island has drainage issues along the beachfront even outside of hurricane season.
On day two of their vacation, Anthony Lewis and Becky Wong walked along East Beach Street carrying bags of ice that were quickly melting in the 90-degree heat. The night before, they allowed the family whose house burnt down to stay with them.
“We didn’t fully expect this,” Lewis said. “It was quite an experience.”
Because they arrived on the island later in the day, Wong said they still don’t know what it’s supposed to look like — without the sand-covered streets and flooded roadways.
Also on day two of his vacation, Morgan Darnell said $300-400 worth of groceries in the fridge of his rental was potentially going bad without power. Other than his phone and a hotspot, Darnell said his family was stranded. “At the moment, yes. I haven’t figured out a plan just yet,” he said.
Tuesday morning, Darnell’s three-year-old son Chandler played in a shelf of sand created by bulldozers attempting to clear East Beach Drive. “He was scared. He did fine until the power went out and then he kind of started freaking out. And then the house started shaking,” Darnell said. “You could feel the whole house sway.”
Without power and three cars totaled beneath his rental, Mark Disher celebrated the fact that his beer was still cold, resting on ice that hadn’t yet melted. After wading through floodwater with flashlights, first responders evacuated Disher’s family early Tuesday morning because embers from the fire were flying their way. Watching the bulldozers move sand later that morning, Disher and his wife said they were waiting to hear back from auto insurance companies.
“Hey, it’s something to talk about,” he said. “You just gotta roll with it, ya know?”
When tornado warnings came in earlier in the evening, full-time Oak Island resident Kathy Ipapo headed downstairs for shelter. She waited in an enclosed area until she noticed the water. “I saw water coming up in the driveway with suds on it. Rainwater doesn’t do that,” she said. “I was petrified.”
She headed upstairs but later realized she forgot her phone and box of important paperwork. The water was rushing too quickly and it was too late. Knowing her neighbors would be worried without an update, Ipapo shared some semblance of Morse code out her window with a flashlight to let them know she was O.K., finally catching the attention of a neighbor two doors down.
A neighbor’s porta-potty ended up flipped over in Ipapo’s backyard, furniture was submerged in her pool, her couch ended up next door, and her entire downstairs living area was trashed. But, even waterlogged, at least her phone still worked.
Nearby, another neighbor’s Mercedes was tucked nose-first in a backyard pool.
“It’s devastating,” Ipapo’s next-door neighbor and full-time resident Jill Giordano said. Even with a totaled Jeep nestled in her backyard, Giordano still held firm on what matters.
“You know what, these are all just things,” she said.
Check out more images from Oak Island the morning after Hurricane Isaias made landfall. Click on an image to scroll through:
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