STUMPY POINT, N.C. — The aftermath of Hurricane Irene's weekend grind along eastern North Carolina came into focus Sunday as residents of Hatteras Island lost their highway tether to the mainland, residents cleaned homes scoured by floodwaters and power for some of the half-million once in the dark flickered back to life.
Officials blamed the storm for six deaths. While the numbers were decreasing, hundreds remained in shelters and more than 400,000 still had no electricity with warnings it could take crews days to get all the lights back on. Authorities up and down the coast said schools would stay closed Monday.
Gov. Beverly Perdue said residents were asking for food, water, generators and help with debris removal as she hopscotched to some of the most heavily damaged areas via helicopter. More than 1,700 people remained in 23 shelters around the state.
Still, the governor said the state fared better than she thought it would given early forecasts of the storm hitting with higher-speed winds.
"Overall, the destruction is not as severe as I was worried it might be, but there is still lots and lots of destruction and people's lives are turned upside down," Perdue said in Kill Devil Hills.
Despite the damage, Perdue said she didn't expect Irene to seriously dent the lucrative Labor Day weekend, when tens of thousands of visitors swarm the Outer Banks for a last summer holiday. All the state's beaches except those in Dare County were open Sunday, and Perdue said she expected Dare beaches would soon reopen.
In some places, relief will take a while. Ferries loaded with truckloads of food, supplies and emergency workers were being sent to Dare County to help residents stranded on Hatteras Island after four breaches chewed through Highway 12. The highway is the only road connecting the mainland to the island comprised of seven villages. State officials warned it may be days before the ferries could start taking people to and from the Outer Banks and gave no estimate on when the road might be fixed. Hurricane Isabel in 2003 chewed a new inlet in the island that took two months to repair.
"We're doing everything we can to help them. That's our focus," said Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County commissioners.
The island is home to 4,000 permanent residents, but also hundreds of pricey vacation homes. The only bridge leading to the island, a two-lane structure badly in need of replacement, carries about 1.5 million vehicles a year, and in a normal year, the tourist season would still have several good weeks left.
Kathy Jarvis gasped when told of the breaches, saying she knows it will be weeks or months before emergency repairs can be made. That's bad news for Dillon's Corner — the combination bait shop and gas station she runs with her husband in Buxton, the village that has the famous black-and-white striped Cape Hatteras lighthouse.
These last couple of months of warm weather are the time Outer Banks businesses depend on to make it through the rest of the year, Jarvis said.
"Economically, we're just paying the bills. We depend on the fall money to put away for winter. I don't know what this is going to do to us," she said.
The washed-out highway was just one scar left by Hurricane Irene's 12-hour march across the eastern part of the state. Its path led to catastrophic sound flooding, as the winds pulled so much water from the sounds to the west that the bottom of the waterways could be seen in some places to the east. Many areas inundated by the sounds also saw Irene's heaviest rains. Up to 15 inches fell as the storm lingered for a few hours.
In South Creek, the Pamlico Sound sent a 13-foot surge into the Pamlico River, then into Muddy Creek and right into Mavis Powers' home.
The 77-year-old doll maker and collector was among scores of homeowners who suffered serious flooding in the area. Rescuers pulled 48 residents from their flooded homes as Irene moved just to the west of them, said Chief Kevin Bonner of Aurora Fire and Rescue.
Nearby, a local fisherman took a state Wildlife Resources officer and an AP photographer on his crab boat to survey a part of the Pamlico River coastline called Hickory Point. They saw more than 200 ruined homes, many missing walls or flattened. Large commercial fish boats lay on their sides, rolled by the force of the hurricane.
Aurora volunteer fire chief Kevin Bonner said neighbors who stayed behind told searchers that they didn't believe anybody else who stayed was missing.
The projected path was several dozen miles east, so many residents ignored the call to evacuate, and the storm was so strong that the surge rose too fast to flee. It then receded nearly as quick as it had come, leaving devastated homes in its wake and a dirty mark more than 3 feet up the walls in Powers' home.
"Maybe this is something that happens once a lifetime," Powers said. "In my case, I certainly hope so."
Ten-foot swells from the Pamlico Sound backed into the Neuse River and destroyed up to 25 houses in a Craven County neighborhood, some of which were rebuilt after Hurricane Isabel, said Chief Jeremy Brown of the Harlowe Volunteer Fire Department. The 2003 storm had been the benchmark for flooding in some places.
The sound also poured into Pamlico County, where the National Guard brought special vehicles to save dozens of people trapped in their homes by up to 5 feet of water.
On the other side of the Pamlico Sound, 6 feet of water rushed into Scranton and Sladesville, a foot more than the flooding from Hurricane Isabel, Hyde County spokeswoman Jamie Tunnell said.
Irene's final blow came as the sun went down Saturday in the northern Outer Banks, where several feet of water rushed from the surrounding sounds into Manteo, Kitty Hawk and Manns Harbor. County Commissioner Judge called it epic flooding.
No formal damage assessments have been released, but cleanup was expected to take weeks in some areas. East Carolina University announced it would be closed Monday as workers repair damage to the campus. Several school systems cancelled classes and warned children may not return for a while because they can't go back until power is restored. Utilities warned customers it may be several days before crews can get all customers back on the grid.
Farmers also suffered. Several lawmakers taking aerial tours Sunday saw tobacco and cotton destroyed in the fields. The bodies of a number of turkeys were on the ground outside a damaged poultry house outside Kinston, said state Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.
Road crews spent Sunday trying to clear key highways. Interstate 95 reopened near Halifax early Sunday. U.S. Highways 13, 17, 64 and 70 were all closed for extended periods after the storm.Comment on this story
"The less people have to get out and drive east of I-95, the better." state Department of Transportation spokeswoman Greer Beaty said.
The south end of North Carolina's coast fared much better. Plenty of people took advantage of the clear skies and hot late summer weather to enjoy Kure Beach, including Brenda Benton, a 69-year-old retiree from Wilmington who has ridden out a number of hurricanes, starting with Hazel in 1954.
"Today you wouldn't know we had anything," she said. "We had more damage at my apartment complex with shingles down than they did here."
Biesecker reported from South Creek. Martha Waggoner and Gary D. Robertson in Raleigh, Bruce Smith in Kure Beach, Tom Breen in Kill Devil Hills and Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.