Hurricane Irene rips up Outer Banks highway; 7 die in N.C.

STAFF WRITERSAugust 28, 2011 

  • Authorities have yet to identify all victims:

    -- An Ayden man was found dead in his Pitt County home after winds from Hurricane Irene toppled a tree onto the house.

    -- Another man in Pitt County drove through standing water, went off a road and died after striking a tree on Saturday.

    -- A mother in Sampson County died Saturday morning when a tree fell on a car carrying her and two family members.

    -- A Nash County man was killed by a tree limb while going to feed his animals outdoors.

    -- A 15-year-old Wayne County girl died after her father’s vehicle collided with another under a blacked-out traffic light in Goldsboro Saturday afternoon. The car, driven by Jorge Lopez of Manassas, Va., rolled several times down an embankment, tossing the driver and three passengers from the car. None of the four was wearing seat belts, according to Sgt. D. Foster of the Goldsboro Police. The girl died at the scene. The other three were taken to Wayne Memorial Hospital, where one is in critical condition.

    -- An Onslow County man died Friday after having a heart attack while installing plywood in advance of the storm.

    -- New Hanover County rescuers found the body of Melton Robinson Jr. who had been missing since jumping or falling into the Cape Fear River just before midnight Friday.

As North Carolinians dug out Sunday from Hurricane Irene’s wind, rains and flood waters, officials surveyed damage that included five breaches of N.C. 12 on the Outer Banks, cutting off Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke from the mainland.

Gov. Bev Perdue flew over Eastern North Carolina, making stops from Trenton to Havelock, to assess the impact of a storm that left seven people dead and about 444,000 households without power.

“Overall, the destruction is not as severe as I was worried it might be,” Perdue said Sunday evening in Kill Devil Hills, standing before a calm ocean. “But there’s still lots and lots of destruction, and people’s lives are turned upside down.”

Perdue, a Democrat, visited Jones, Craven, Carteret and Dare counties to assess the state’s response to the storm damage. Meanwhile, state Agriculture Secretary Steve Troxler, state House Speaker Tom Tillis and state Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger, all Republicans, made their own inspections in Carteret, Beaufort and Pasquotank counties.

Federal officials also spread out over the coastal plain to determine the damage, although it will take several days before FEMA will put a price tag on it, Craig Fugate, chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Sunday during a conference call.

The breach of N.C. 12 could put an early end to the tourist season in the southern Outer Banks.

In Buxton, Stanley Meekins, owner of the Red Drum convenience store, now cut off from the mainland, surveyed the damage.

“We’ve been through this a dozen times before,” he said. “We were flooded out by Irene and lost our power and lost all our perishable goods. But this is the price you pay for living in paradise.”

Much work lies ahead as state crews repair bridges and roads, utility crews restore electricity, and residents repair their homes and businesses. On Sunday, more than 1,800 N.C. Department of Transportation employees, almost 400 National Guard soldiers and more than 300 state Highway Patrol troopers were out working.

East Carolina University officials canceled classes Monday on the Greenville campus, citing downed trees and water leaks in buildings. College officials will decide Monday whether to cancel classes Tuesday.

'Miss Irene was no joke'

Some of the state’s worst flooding happened along the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds, in the state’s Inner Banks. Rescue crews fanned out late Saturday and Sunday in search of people trapped by the rising waters.

Officials reported more than 200 water rescues in Northampton, Beaufort and Craven counties, and in Pamlico County – where two pregnant women and two infants were saved.

Pamlico County, at the mouth of the Neuse River, was hammered by the storm. County Manager Timothy Buck estimated that Irene flooded as much as 30 percent of the homes there. Power was out to most of the county, and residents were advised to boil their water.

“Miss Irene was no joke,” said Val Cradle, 54, of Pantego in neighboring Beaufort County.

Cradle and Eddie Selby, 68, were ripping up soaked carpet Sunday afternoon and trying to scrub away the stench in their home.

Cradle fled when the waters started rising Saturday. But Selby refused to leave, as he had during hurricanes Fran and Floyd.

On Saturday, Selby watched the water sweep a freezer off his back porch. Then his lawn mower disappeared. And then water drowned his truck and van, the only means by which he could have escaped.

“It all happened so quick,” Selby said.

As the water rushed through his house, Selby crawled into the attic with his dog Max and waited for the water to recede.

On Sunday as they were cleaning up, no one but a neighbor stopped to check on them.

“It is like we don’t exist in Pantego,” Selby said.

7,500 were in shelters

Eighty-one shelters opened during the peak of the storm to serve more than 7,500 people who fled their homes. By Sunday night, 23 shelters remained in operation with 1,700 evacuees.

Communities from New Hanover to Currituck counties were without power. State officials reported that about 444,000 households were still dark Sunday night.

Richmond, Va.-based Dominion Power said 1.2 million customers lost power, most of them in Virginia. By Sunday afternoon, about 70,000 Dominion Power customers in North Carolina were still affected.

Meanwhile, Progress Energy reported a peak of 280,000 outages, with less than 121,000 still without power at 8 p.m. Sunday. Of those, 1,900 were in Wake County. Among the hardest-hit counties were Wayne, Craven and Carteret, which each had more than 14,000 affected customers.

Progress Energy had a crew of 1,000 workers at hand, but they couldn’t get out to work until Sunday morning after the storm had passed. Spokesman Scott Sutton predicted several days of blackouts for many of the heavy-hit areas.

“No one is immune,” he said. “The coast is definitely the worst, but Goldsboro is badly hit, and Fayetteville is badly hit. It’s what happens when a well-timed gust finds an unfortunate tree.”

The lights should be turned on again in 95 percent of the affected homes by midnight Wednesday, a Progress Energy official said. Customers in Zebulon and Selma are among those likely to wait longer.

It’s pretty torn up here

In the northern Outer Banks, the results of soundside flooding could be seen. Marsh grass, mud and other debris was carried about 150 yards inland. Some buildings showed a waterline four feet up on the outside. Docks were upside down, and boats littered the shoreline on Kitty Hawk Bay at Kill Devil Hills.

“It’s pretty torn up here,” said Monty Leavell, 57, who has lived on the Outer Banks for 37 years. He said it was the worst soundside flooding he’s seen since Hurricane Floyd in 1999. “The water came up quick.”

In Carteret County, residents started the cleanup Sunday with sunny skies and a sense of determination, ready to peel off the plywood and pick up limbs.

Among them was Eason Clark, 59, who runs Clark’s Repair Service on the causeway between Morehead City and Atlantic Beach.

“I’m just going to have to replace carpet. I’m happy,” Clark said.

A section of the causeway and surrounding businesses were under as much as two feet of water for a time during the storm. Three piers on the island were damaged by the storm: Oceanana, Bogue Inlet and the one at the Sheraton hotel.

On The Circle at Atlantic Beach, Jimmy Butts was cleaning up his Tackle Box Tavern with a garden hose, rinsing down the sand that had pushed in under the doors when the surf breached the seawall. Otherwise, he said, the 1950s-era block building was in good shape.

“It’s been a good summer,” Butts said. “I’m sorry it had to end like this.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report, as well as staff writers J. Andrew Curliss, Chuck Liddy, Mandy Locke, John Frank and Martha Quillin.

aweigl@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4848

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