ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. — While much of eastern North Carolina cleaned up from Hurricane Irene on Monday, people still in shelters yearned to get home and residents stranded on Hatteras Island listened to radios for updates on work to restore power and ferry them supplies.
Gov. Beverly Perdue proclaimed that beaches were open for business but also asked the federal government to declare seven coastal counties disaster areas so homeowners and businesses could get help for property. She sounded subdued Monday evening after a second day of aerial tours to view damage and meet with displaced residents.
"What we've seen today has been really, really hard — folks who have lost every single thing they have," Perdue said during a news conference in Raleigh. "This is big powerful stuff and these people are depending on North Carolina to help them stand up their lives again."
About 239,000 North Carolina residents remained without power, well down from the peak of 600,000 people without electricity after Irene made landfall Saturday.
A number of school systems in the eastern part of the state will remain closed Tuesday either because power has not been restored or repairs have not been made. East Carolina University students will also miss another day of class.
Hatteras Island, one of the jewels of the state's tourism industry, faced an uncertain amount of time cut off from its only road to the mainland. Ferries were taking vital supplies.
Perdue said preliminary estimates of damages to residents and businesses should be ready by the end of the week. The governor also said damage to tobacco, soybean and corn crops are of a magnitude that she hadn't seen before. Thirty-four counties already are getting federal help to pay for the immediate storm response.
Tree branches, parts of broken buildings and other debris started lining streets for pickup. Even inmates from state prisons were being called on to clean up at Atlantic Beach. Rocky Mount Mayor David Combs asked Perdue for extra assistance because he estimates debris cleanup alone will cost his city $2.5 million.
Help began arriving in earnest Monday on Hatteras Island. It was cut off from the mainland when water rushing into the Pamlico Sound destroyed at least five portions of state Highway 12, the only road leading to the barrier island. Every hour to 90 minutes, a ferry left for the island carrying utility workers, medical professionals and their supplies to the island. A tractor trailer full of ice should arrive by Tuesday, Dare County spokeswoman Kathryn Bryan said.
Transportation officials have given no estimate on how long emergency repairs to the two-lane highway will take. But Perdue indicated it could be longer than the two months needed to rebuild the road in 2003 when Hurricane Isabel chewed a new channel into Hatteras Island.
The problems "looked to me to be larger than the last time," Perdue said during a visit to a shelter in Rocky Mount.
For now, no residents are being allowed on the ferry. Officials first want to provide for the needs of the people still left on the island before allowing residents who evacuated to come back, Bryan said.
For many on the island who don't have power, the only news has come from the local radio station. Freelance photographer Don Bowers headed from his house on the southern end of the island to take pictures of the breach near Rodanthe on Monday. Along the way, he took down the names and numbers of people who haven't been able to contact their families. He said he'd use his working landline to call their families when he returns to his house.
Some people started to get anxious as a third day of isolation began. There was a quarter-mile line at one of the few gas stations with fuel. But florist Sydnee Slaughter in Hatteras said for the most part, the island's residents were staying true to their well-known relaxed nature.
"It's kind of like a mini-vacation," Slaughter said in a phone interview. "But an uncomfortable vacation because there's no air conditioning."
While the rest of the tourism season on Hatteras Island appears shot, the rest of the state's beaches began a push to bring people back, as the holiday weekend loomed.
"This is a busy time of year for us. The Labor Day weekend is critical," said Celina Moose, manager of Kitty Hawk Kites, which sells kites and gives lessons in hang gliding, parasailing, surfing, and offers a host of other activities including kayak tours.
The owners of the Crab Shack in Salter Path were also trying to get their restaurant running again as quickly as they can. Brothers Eric and Craig Guthrie tore out the carpet Monday while they waited for an insurance adjuster to arrive. Like most of the worst-damaged places in North Carolina, water from the nearby sound came tearing in, leaving a least a foot of water behind. Oceanfront areas on the other side of the island were largely unscathed.
Saturday was the sixth time the restaurant had flooded since it was opened 35 years ago.
"There was Bertha, Fran, the two after," said Craig Guthrie, struggling to remember all the storms. "Then there was Ophelia. That one tore off the whole back dining room."
There still are plenty of people in North Carolina who have not yet made it back to see how Irene left their homes. Roughly 1,000 people remained in shelters Monday.
Gordon Riggins remained at the Raleigh Road Baptist Church in Wilson with about 40 other people. He remembered the devastation Hurricane Floyd brought to the area in 1999 and didn't hesitate to find more substantial shelter than his mobile home in Nash County.
His brother, who lives next door, stopped by after the storm to tell him their trailers survived, but they have no electricity and it could be two weeks before power is restored.
"I'm going to stay here as long as the shelter's open," Riggins said. "Once it closes, I'll have to go back there and fight the heat."Comment on this story
Across the eastern part of the state, people without power tried to make the best of their bad situations.
Kevin Minnifield was still at his charcoal grill outside his New Bern home Monday. He said his family emptied their freezers after the power went out Saturday in winds so strong it peeled his mother's roof right off her house. He was cooking chicken, potatoes and cabbage.
"I've got some stuff on ice," said Minnifield, who works for a cleaning service hired by a local retail store. "But we've got to keep cooking it, because it'll go bad."
Bynum reported from New Bern. Emery P. Dalesio, Martha Waggoner and Skip Foreman in Raleigh, Michael Biesecker in Salter Path, Ray Henry in Wilson, Mitch Weiss in Nags Head and Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.