North Carolina rescuers search for Irene victims

Raleigh News & ObserverAugust 28, 2011 

Rescue crews are fanning out across the eastern part of the state in search of people still trapped by the rising waters brought by Hurricane Irene, which has left tens of thousands without power today and cut off highway access to Corolla and Hatteras on the Outer Banks.

State emergency officials were flying over Beaufort, Hyde, Dare and Pamlico counties to assess the situation. Gov. Bev Perdue will visit Jones, Craven, Carteret and Dare counties to assess the state's response to the storm damage.

Teams of federal employees have begun spreading out over Eastern North Carolina to assess damage from the hurricane, Craig Fugate, chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told a press conference this morning.

Fugate said it will be several days before FEMA can put a price tag on damages from the hurricane. FEMA also has sent a number of power generators for use in North Carolina.

Late yesterday and early today, officials reported more than 200 water rescues, including nine people rescued by boat in the southeastern part of Northampton County, which is in the far northeastern part of the state. This morning, soldiers with the N.C. National Guard were en route to Ocracoke for a swiftwater rescue.

In Beaufort County, which includes Belhaven, officials said today there have been 76 swiftwater rescues.

In Craven County, there were 100 rescues. An additional 26 people were rescued in Pamlico County, including two pregnant women and a pair of infants. Water rose so high there that the National Guard couldn't get through in pickup trucks, leaving some residents without aid until morning.

In all, Hurricane Irene has triggered at least five deaths in North Carolina and left more than 500,000 homes without power after making landfall early Saturday near Cape Lookout.

Officials with East Carolina University announced classes would be canceled Monday.

Rescuers were meeting in various counties this morning to map out plans.

"There are places we haven't been," said Mark Van Sciver, a spokesman in the North Carolina Joint Information Center, in an interview this morning.

N.C. 12 - the backbone road on the Outer Banks - is washed out or impassable in at least two places, and several towns are cut off from Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills in the central part of the Outer Banks, officials said today. A total of 228 roads are closed, including 21 bridges.

Floodwaters pushed onto the Outer Banks from the sounds, making parts of N.C. 12 impassable around Duck and Rodanthe.

State workers have begun trying to restore ferry service along the coast. So far, no ferries were running late this morning. The Department of Transportation reports electrical problems in Pamlico County at Cherry Branch on the Neuse River, site of some of the worst flooding. The ferry division also reported no electricity at Stumpy Point, which serves as the emergency ferry route to Rodanthe on Hatteras Island.

At 10 a.m., officials are reporting 525,000 customers without power in the state.

In all, 56 shelters are open and are housing 4,655 people, Van Sciver said.

The most sheltered are in Beaufort County, he said.

As day broke, the efforts to clean up were already apparent. Crews hauling generators, and flood clean-up wagons, streamed east on the highways from Raleigh. Duke Energy sent 170 crews east at daybreak.

In Carteret County, residents started today 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.

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."

Three piers on the island were damaged by the storm: Oceanana, Bogue Inlet and the one at the Sheraton hotel.

A sound-side trailer park called Triple S Marina Village was flooded and one trailer was demolished after being beaten for hours by waves. Several trailers got water inside.

"There's going to be some tears at the trailer park," said Van Pierce, who has had a trailer there since 1995. He calls it his "redneck condo."

Pierce was enjoying a hot breakfast at the home of the trailer park's assistant manager, Rita Stevens, who was making pancakes on a griddle with a generator.

All day Saturday, Irene buffeted the state with winds up to 85 mph. Heavy winds collapsed a mall roof in Wayne County and peeled another off the 911 center. In Beaufort County, crews pulled a man from water that rose to his middle after the walls of his mobile home collapsed.

"We've taken a hard hit," Assistant County Manager Jack Veit said late Saturday. "The level of winds we've had, we've had them all day, and we're still in the midst. It's just a mess."

The hurricane killed three people in cars, including a 15-year-old girl whose father's vehicle collided with another under a blacked-out traffic light in Goldsboro. Four more children were ejected from that car and taken to Wayne County Memorial Hospital.

Irene was downgraded to a Category 1 storm by the time it hit North Carolina - a smidgeon of the Category 3 that roared through the Bahamas with 115-mph winds. Still, Irene remained a force that roiled the ocean, sounds and coastal rivers.

The governor and legislative leaders are planning separate trips to tour hard-hit areas today.

On the Outer Banks, soundside flooding appears extensive today.

Marsh grass, mud and other debris was carried about 150 yards inland. Some buildings show a waterline 4-feet up on the outside.

Docks are upside down and boats litter the sound 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's the worst soundside flooding he's seen since Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

"The water came up quick," he said, starting at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

His neighbor's propane tank blew loose, hissing through the night. Someone's dock ended up in his yard.

Despite the mayhem, the storm turned many of the coast's residents into gawking spectators.

As the eye of Hurricane Irene neared the northern Outer Banks, Todd Riddick sat shirtless on his front porch with his 2-year-old son Christian between his legs.

"We're just sitting out here watching trees break," he said.

Not far away, Mike Scruggs, 22, stopped to take video of the Avalon Fishing Pier to send to friends. With his cellphone wrapped in a plastic bag, he held it up against the wind and used his other hand to shield his eyes.

"I didn't know the sand would be whipping like it is," he said, his face sandblasted with a 5 o'clock shadow of grit.

Johnny Reed, a local resident, tried to describe the feeling standing in the wind: "It's like sitting in the back of a pickup truck looking over the top as you drive 55 mph.

"The Wright Brothers came here for the wind," he continued. "They just didn't want the water to come along with it."

Progress Energy reported a peak of 280,000 outages, with more than 12,500 in Wake County alone.

At 10 a.m. Sunday, the company was reporting more than 170,000 still without power. In Wake County, 5,600 customers did not have power.

In hard-hit Carteret County, more than 99 percent of the company's 24,000 customers there were without power.

The energy company had a crew of 1,000 workers at hand, but by Saturday night, the weather was still too poor for them to begin. Spokesman Scott Sutton predicted several days of blackouts for any 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."

A tornado struck in Tyrrell County near Columbia, destroying several houses, Emergency Management Director Wesley Hawkins said. Another twister was suspected in Beaufort County near Belhaven. Winds were too high to investigate the damage.

In most inland counties, water kept rising as Irene passed into Virginia.

Crews ferried more than 100 people to higher ground Saturday in Craven County, where 80 percent of residents had no electricity.

Dozens of families were trapped in Pamlico County near Oriental as floodwater 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 arrived from Goldsboro. Spotty communications and high wind hampered their efforts.

"Phones come and go, cellphones come and go, the Internet comes and goes," Pamlico Emergency Management Director David Spruill said. "It all depends on how you hold your head."

In addition to the teen killed in the Goldsboro accident, a driver died when a vehicle hydroplaned in Pitt County, and another died when a vehicle was hit by a tree in Sampson County.

In Nash County, a man was killed by a tree limb while going to feed his animals outdoors. A man in Onslow County was hammering up plywood when he suffered a heart attack and died.

Also, two people died Saturday evening when a car ran off the road and struck a tree near Franklinton. It was unclear whether the wreck was related to bad weather from Irene.

But Irene spared many places that hurricanes typically victimize.

In Wilmington, the storm passed through early in the day, and power outages dipped from more than 60,000 to roughly 30,000. Warren Lee, New Hanover County's emergency management director, said a few houses had damage from tree limbs, and some spots had minor flooding, but the county's two shelters merged to one by early Saturday afternoon.

"I feel pretty blessed," he said. "It certainly had the potential to do some damage."

Staff writers Joe Neff and Martha Quillin contributed to this report.

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