1 of 14
The News & Observer, Chris Seward, Associated Press
This aerial photo taken during a helicopter tour, on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011, with a group of federal and state officials shows a section of Highway 12 at the edge of Rodanthe, N.C., that was destroyed by Hurricane Irene.

MANTEO, N.C. — Residents along North Carolina's coastline spent Tuesday scrubbing floors flooded by Hurricane Irene and dragging mounds of soaked debris to the curb while state officials tallied the damage from a storm that destroyed more than 1,100 homes.

Preliminary tallies show that Hurricane Irene caused at least $71 million in property damage in seven eastern counties and more in agricultural losses, Gov. Beverly Perdue said after touring the region with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The governor emphasized that damage figures were preliminary and will likely grow.

"This has become an expensive hurricane for North Carolina. So, though others are saying she was a Category 1, for our state, and for our coastline, the magnitude of the rain, the intensity of the wind and the duration of the hit for our coast is significant," Perdue said during a news conference on the Outer Banks.

Later in Raleigh, the governor said she had ordered the state Transportation Department to come up with a short-term plan for the carved-up N.C. Highway 12 by the end of next week. She said she wants traffic flowing again within a few weeks.

Four breaches in the highway have cut off Hatteras Island from the mainland, and ferries are bringing supplies to the people who stayed there during the storm.

"Highway 12 remains a major concern," Perdue said. "I have also ordered DOT to come up with a long-term solution for Highway 12."

The storm that made landfall at Cape Lookout on Saturday and then steamed up the East Coast contributed to six deaths in North Carolina while leaving hundreds of thousands without power and damage that's still being tallied. The storm also dealt a blow to tourism-dependent towns coming days before the Labor Day weekend.

In Wanchese on the southern tip of Roanoke Island, growing piles of roadside debris marked where hurricane-whipped flood waters surged out of the sounds and rose to waist- or chest-deep in neighborhoods.

Jared Waters, 24, picked through his wet possessions while searching for a place to live. During the storm, water from Croatan and Roanoke sounds came three feet over the ground and roughly six inches into the home he rents. His landlord promised to fix the floors, but Waters feared the moist crawlspace under the brick home will breed mold.

"I've done flood cleanup before and I know how fast that stuff grows," Waters said. "And you can't live in a house with mold, especially with the standing water under the house. There's a pretty good chance we're not coming back."

His fellow tenant in the two-family home, Edward Spencer, gestured at waterlogged mattresses, a box spring, sheets and a wet recliner junked along the curb. A fisherman, Spencer was putting his salvageable belongings into the bed of a pickup truck alongside his shrimping nets.

"I'm leaving," he said. "Why set up and let this happen again?"

Federal officials promised help. Perdue's administration was finishing damage assessments Tuesday that will be used to request federal assistance. Napolitano, a former Arizona governor whose department oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, promised those requests will be reviewed quickly.

"Once we get them, we will move things very quickly," she said.

Officials said the first counties to be considered for federal disaster help will be Dare, Craven, Beaufort, Tyrrell, Carteret, Pamlico and Hyde.

The hurricane inflicted serious damage on the state's tobacco, corn, cotton and some soybean crops, said Vilsack, the U.S. agriculture secretary and a former Iowa governor. He urged farmers to file crops insurance claims and said additional assistance may be available.

"I've not seen the kind of flooding and damage to crops that I saw briefly today," Vilsack said. "And if this is representative of what North Carolina has suffered, it's obviously a fairly significant blow to North Carolina agriculture."

Conditions were improving for many hit by the hurricane. Utility crews have restored power to all but about 138,000 customers, down from a high of more than a half-million. Dare County lifted a boil water advisory for people north of Oregon Inlet. Few showed up for lunch at a relief kitchen operating out of a Baptist church in downtown Manteo. Volunteers were also loading meals onto nine trucks that navigated the islands, offering food to those without power or just too tired to cook.

"I think there's a lot of flood damage, a lot of trees downs," Red Cross kitchen manager Rick Ruble said. "The huge need? Our guys aren't finding that."

Others still need assistance. In coastal Pamlico County, 66-year-old Sylvia Ross was wondering when she might get some aid after floodwaters submerged the ground floor of her home in Lowland and stopped just four steps away from her second-story floor.

"We haven't had any help," Ross said as she left a local cafÉ where a generator was powering the kitchen, but the dining room at breakfast remained dark like most of the county. "I'd like to know when they'll send campers here. We need a place to stay."

For now, Ross is staying with a friend whose home also flooded but not as badly.

Ross, who lives alone, rode out Irene at her home in the town of Lowland on the coast off Pamlico Sound. It pushed a wall of water ashore that quickly began rising in Ross' home. She found herself wading through water up to her knees as she scrambled to a bathroom to get her blood pressure medicine from atop a cabinet. Then, she says, she felt and saw a snake brush past her leg as it swam through her home.

She made her way to the stairs and grabbed her cats along the way — "I threw them up the stairs."

The water stopped rising just four steps from the upper floor where Ross and her cats sat watching in disbelief.

A tree had fallen across her front door and the force of the water had wedged Ross' refrigerator against the back door. Finally a neighbor arrived, paddling a boat up the flooded road, and got her out of the house.

"Everything I've got is wet. I haven't even opened the closets," she said. "It's just devastating."

On Goose Creek Island off Pamlico Sound, the fishing village looked like one giant rummage sale with mounds of moldy carpet, soggy furniture, muddy refrigerators and piles of wet clothing on the lawns of dozens of homes.

"We've just piled all our crap in the yard and 99 percent of it is ruined," said Peggy Page, who works for a fishermen's association in North Carolina.

While Page and her husband had evacuated to their son's home 75 miles inland, the storm sent four feet of water into their home from Jones Bay a quarter of a mile away.

On Tuesday the house was mostly empty, most of its contents in the yard. The refrigerator and two mattresses sat by the curb. House plants, boxes of paperwork in binders and a tall lamp sat on the front porch. Beneath a tall magnolia was a stack of luggage and a pile of work boots. Quilts, blankets and bed sheets hung from the chain-link fence around the backyard, where books and magazines nearly too soggy to burn smoked and smoldered in a large metal drum.

"It's hard at 60 years old to have to figure out if your home is repairable," Peggy Page said. "But we're alive and we've got a place to stay. There's other people on the island who can't say that."

Bynum reported from Goose Creek Island. Gary D. Robertson in Raleigh contributed to this report.