Two dead, many without power in North Carolina

Charlotte ObserverAugust 27, 2011 

At least two people have died, more than 227,000 homes and businesses are without power, and two piers have been seriously damaged as Hurricane Irene moves across North Carolina's coastal sounds after making landfall this morning near Cape Lookout.

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 people. City spokeswoman Colleen Roberts says the city is under a state of emergency and power is out for about 60 percent of its residents.

A storm surge of 7 feet was reported about 5 a.m. at Fairfield Harbor, east of New Bern.

The National Hurricane Center reported that Irene's eye hit the lower tip of the Outer Banks with 85 mph winds.

Although Irene is now classified as a Category 1 storm and has weakened 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.

The hurricane is moving north/northeast at 14 miles per hour up Pamlico Sound toward the northern Outer Banks, and is expected to continue up the Atlantic Coast.

"North Carolina, in the reports we have gotten all night and this morning, is standing strong," Gov. Bev Perdue said at a 10 a.m. briefing.

But Perdue cautioned residents in areas hit by the hurricane to remain indoors as strong winds, heavy rain and surging waters are expected throughout the day

"We have had reports of folks who are beginning to venture out," she said. "You endanger your safety and the safety of the first responders who might come and try to rescue you. ... Stay safe."

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

More than 200 Highway Patrol officers, 285 National Guard troops and local law enforcement officials are "waiting to get out and help as soon as the weather clears," she said.

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.

Two piers along the coast suffered 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 227,000 homes and businesses were reported without power in Eastern North Carolina as of noon -- a number that could continue to climb. More details on outages are here. You can get the latest on this updating map of Progress Energy outages.

At least two storm-related deaths have been reported.

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.

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 in the Cape Fear River in Castle Hayne.

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

"We know those road closures may last for several hours," Perdue said.

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.

In the Triangle, moderate wind and rain were reported overnight and continue this morning. A flash flood watch is in effect for most of the area through this evening.

About 100 of Raleigh-Durham International Airport's 400 daily flights have been canceled for today. Travelers are advised to check airline websites for information on schedule changes; a link to these sites can be found on the RDU website.

Forecasters say the heaviest rain may fall in the Triangle late this morning and early this afternoon, with two to four inches expected.

Raleigh has activated its emergency response center and set up a number for non-emergency calls. Details are here.

The brunt of the storm was affecting the North Carolina coast. A steady wall of wind and rain battered the northern Outer Banks this morning as Irene prepared to churn through the sound past Cape Lookout before hitting Nags Head.

At the northern edge of the Outer Banks, Currituck County officials reported sustained wind at 55 mph, which is causing sporadic power outages. In Corolla, officials estimated that 1,500 residents remain.

The surf on the beach is clawing at the dune. "It's kind of early for that," said Randall Edwards, a county emergency management spokesman. "We are going to have some significant storm surge."

Down coast in Rodanthe, in the "s-curves" of beachfront road N.C. 12, water is washing inland from the beach.

Kathryn Bryan, a spokeswoman for Dare County Emergency Management, said no major damage has been reported there yet. But officials based in Manteo are still taking stock of how a 12-hour period of sideways rain and body-checking wind is treating the outer shoreline.

About a third of the residents at Nags Head stayed put despite evacuation orders. The power remained on, but downed tree limbs and flooding were reported. Lightning and thunder erupted through the night, which is unusual in a hurricane, Bryan said.

Dawn came early to portions of the beach, where television crews erected spotlights to watch the frothing white surf cover the 25-yard beach. Those who braved the wind gusts staggered, and at least one camera crew was chased from the beach by the waves.

At the Comfort Inn near the Causeway, the unofficial media bunker for the storm, water dripped from the ceiling onto beds in the oceanfront rooms and soaked ceiling tiles until they fell in a main conference room.

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.

Down the coast, heavy wind and rain raked North Carolina's southeastern beaches. At Johnnie Mercer's Pier in Wrightsville Beach, a police officer said steady winds of 55 to 60 mph had been felt overnight. Sand sprayed off the beach with the force of a sandblaster.

When asked how the pier was holding up, the office yelled, "Looking good!"

In Wilmington, the power flickered off and on through the night, finally giving up the ghost on Market Street near downtown about 4:30 a.m.

By 7 a.m., rain had slackened, but gusts of wind were still bending trees violently and sending pelting sprays of water off every visible surface.

At Topsail Beach, officials were reporting some wind damage and tropical storm force winds on the town's Facebook page. A post on the page about 7 a.m. read: "Winds about 40 mph here with gusts. On the way to the EOC saw two trees down. Only one was blocking the southbound lane of 210 on the way to highway 50 towards Surf City."

Wind and rain were picking up speed in Washington, N.C., along the Pamlico River this morning, damaging homes and businesses. Power was out in most of the town.

One home flew off its foundation in Beaufort County, and three businesses and three homes were damaged early this morning, said Jim Chrisman, interim county manager.

The National Weather Service reported that a tornado touched down in the county Friday night, but it was not confirmed, Chrisman said. This morning, he is seeing more emergency calls come in.

Beaufort County is seeing wind gusts up to 70 miles per hour in places like Aurora, Chrisman said. Washington's wind speeds are about 50 mph.

Beaufort County is on a flood alert, with high tidal surges expected from the Pamlico River.

Irene has lost some power but is still whipping up trouble before its run 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 and Steve Lyttle, and The Associated Press, contributed to this report.

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