Death toll is four in N.C.; flooding severe; curfews in force

From staff and wire reportsAugust 26, 2011 

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At least four people have died, more than 500,000 homes and businesses are without power, two piers have been seriously damaged and flooding has become a deadly threat, but the center of Hurricane Irene finally has moved out of North Carolina.

In Goldsboro, a 15-year-old girl died when her father's car hit another at an Ash Street intersection where a power outage knocked out traffic signals. Four other children were ejected from the car and taken to Wayne Memorial Hospital. Also, in Goldsboro, the roof of the 911 operations center and Berkeley Mall, which was closed, were ripped away.

Soundside flooding is severe on the northern Outer Banks. Nags Head has been cut off from Manteo as N.C. 12 is impassable in many areas, especially around Sunset Grill and Sanderling. Click here to see raw video of the Avalon pier battered by surf as the storm raked the Outer Banks.

Dozens of families were trapped in Pamlico County near Oriental as flood water pushed 2 feet higher than its crest during Hurricane Isabel in 2003. The National Guard was trying to free people using high-water vehicles, and swift-water rescue teams were on the way. Spotty communications and high wind hampered their efforts. "Phones come and go, cell phones come and go, the Internet comes and goes," said Emergency Management Director David Spruill. "It all depends on how you hold your head."

Dawn-to-dusk curfews are in effect in several Tar Heel municipalities, including New Bern, Greenville, Goldsboro, Edenton, Washington, Ayden, Farmville, Duck, Kill Devil Hills and Kinston.

Emergency officials in Beaufort County said they think a tornado touched down near Belhaven. Nearby in Washington, a man was rescued in waist-deep water after the walls of his mobile home collapsed, said Jim Chrisman, interim county manager.

A second tornado touched down early today in Tyrrell County, destroying several homes. Winds were still too strong in the afternoon to get a complete count, but Emergency Management Director Wesley Hawkins said two or three people with minor injuries were evacuated. Flood waters from the Scuppernong River threatened downtown Columbia.

"It's about to sever the town in half," he said.

Flooding is severe around the southern sounds, and some of the worst is in New Bern, where the storm pushed water from the Pamlico Sound up the Neuse River and into the city of about 30,000.

In the Triangle, gusty winds and some rain have plagued parts of the area, particularly Wake and Johnston counties. More details are here.

The hurricane center reported that Irene's eye hit the lower tip of the Outer Banks near Cape Lookout at 7:30 a.m. with 85 mph winds, and its strength has remained remarkably consistent. At 11 p.m. the eye was off the coast of Virginia, and top sustained winds were 80 mph.

The storm was moving north-northeast at nearly 16 miles per hour and is expected to reach southern New England on Sunday.

Although Irene was downgraded to a Category 1 storm by the time it hit North Carolina after weakening from the Category 3 that roared through the Bahamas with 115-mph winds this week, it remains a force that is roiling the ocean, sounds and coastal rivers.

"We have had a lot of coastal flooding, a lot of storm surge, a lot of trees and power lines down across Eastern North Carolina," said National Weather Service meteorologist Casey Dail, who is based in Wilmington.

Gov. Bev Perdue said at a 6 p.m. briefing that state teams would be out Sunday to assess the damage. She said the storm's cost would be "significant."

She also cautioned residents to remain indoors.

Perdue said this morning that she had talked to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and alerted her to be prepared to "transfer federal dollars into our state" once the extent of the damage is known.

Aside from the accident in Goldsboro, three deaths were reported in the state.

Emergency officials in Nash County said a man was crushed to death outside his home by a large limb blown down by the storm.

Nash County Emergency Management Director Brian Brantley said the man was walking outside his home in a rural area of the county about 10:20 a.m. today when the limb struck him. The man's name and age weren't immediately released.

An unidentified Onslow County man who was putting plywood over the windows of his home suffered a heart attack and died, said Ernie Seneca, spokesman for the N.C. Division of Emergency Management.

Authorities say another man has been reported missing and presumed dead in the Cape Fear River in Castle Hayne.

Two piers on the coast suffered serious damage. Emerald Isle town manager Frank Rush told The Associated Press that the end of the Bogue Inlet pier collapsed. Also, part of the pier behind the Sheraton Hotel in Atlantic Beach fell into the surf.

More than 275,000 homes and businesses were reported without power in Eastern North Carolina as of 2:30 p.m. -- a number that could continue to climb. More details on outages are here. You can get the latest information on outages on this updating map of Progress Energy outages or this Duke Energy page.

Ten "major roads" were reported closed at times today in Eastern North Carolina, including N.C. 12 on the northern end of Ocracoke Island, which was overrun with water.

Here is a county-by-county list of the roads that are reported closed.

Three tornadoes triggered by the hurricane were reported, including one that ripped off the roof of a car dealer, Edgewater Motors, near Belhaven in Beaufort County.

Mike Walker, 45, who lives along the Intracoastal Waterway in Morehead City, ventured out this morning to survey the damage that Irene wrought. He saw several docks that were submerged and streets littered with tree debris.

"I expected a whole lot more than what it is now," Walker said. "This isn't half as much damage as I expected. I'm thankful for that."

Downtown Washington, N.C., was flooded with 18 inches to 2 feet of water this morning. In Morehead City, a Ford Mustang was swept off U.S. 70 by swirling waters. The driver was not injured.

Emergency officials in the town took shelter as the storm swept through the waterfront with winds reaching as high as 55 miles per hour, streets flooded and trees downed.

"It's making it dangerous for anyone to be traveling," said Josh Kay, city manager.

There was no electricity throughout the city, and the clock on the old courthouse was stuck at 7:21.

On the Outer Banks, about a third of the residents at Nags Head stayed put despite evacuation orders.

The storm attracted a load of interest from media outlets across the country, drawing local TV stations from Houston and Los Angeles, as well as the Discovery Channel's storm chasers and National Geographic.

Up the Eastern Seaboard, more than 2 million people were told to move to safer places, and New York City ordered the nation's biggest subway system shut down for the first time because of a natural disaster.

Staff writers John Frank, Katelyn Ferral, Ely Portillo, David Ranii, Josh Shaffer and Steve Lyttle, and The Associated Press, contributed to this report.

irene@newsobserver.com.

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