Manteo, N.C. — The Outer Banks is no stranger to a Category 1 hurricane like Irene, which hit Saturday with 85 mph winds and heavy rain.
But Irene's eye tracked just west of the Pamlico, Croatan and Albemarle sounds, then crossed the Currituck Sound to go back out to sea.
That drew water from the sounds, as well the ocean, to the west. The water piled up in bays, inlets and rivers on the western side of the sounds. Once the hurricane passed, that water rushed back east, smashing into the barrier islands.
"The sound-side flooding last night was epic, as far as our county is concerned," Dare County Commissioner Warren Judge said Sunday.
Hatteras and Ocracoke islands have been cut off, stranding at least 2,500 people. Gov. Bev Perdue said that N.C. Highway 12, the only road linking the 200-mile chain of barrier islands, appeared to have been breached twice.
Perdue confirmed "a major breach" about 5 miles north of Rodanthe in Dare County. Aerial video by WRAL News appeared to show another breach 5 miles away.
N.C. 12 was significantly damaged in at least one other place south of Oregon Inlet.
State Department of Transportation crews were determining whether the highway was breached or just damaged. They also were checking out Bonner Bridge, which crosses Oregon Inlet to Hatteras Island.
Perdue pledged that the state would make repairs quickly.
"We will make every effort to restore this vital transportation link as soon as possible," she said in a statement Sunday.
Hurricane Isabel tore a similar breach through Hatteras Island, near Frisco, in 2003. It took the state two months to fill the new inlet and repair the highway.
Ferries will be the islands' only link to the mainland until road repairs are complete. Emergency ferry service will restart Monday to carry essential emergency personnel and supplies.
Authorities weren't allowing anyone onto those islands or the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Monday, and there was no word on when residents and visitors might be allowed back. Airspace was also closed over the islands Sunday to let state and military helicopters through.
Hyde County was also closed for much of the day Sunday, but authorities began allowing mainland residents to re-enter around 4 p.m.
"Safety is our priority, and we cannot allow people in until resources are in place," Hyde County spokeswoman Jamie Tunnell said.
A fire, believed to be caused by electrical wires damaged in hurricane-force winds, destroyed a home in Rodanthe, but no other obvious structural damage on the islands has been reported.
Dare County Fire Marshal Doug Remaley said it would take up to a week before investigators determine a definite cause of the fire, which started around 8:30 p.m. Saturday. Firefighters couldn't reach the blaze until Sunday, because 6 feet of floodwater blocked the fire station, Remaley said.
The homeowners were inside the house when the fire broke out, but no one was injured. They were staying with neighbors.
Water also reached some buildings, but widespread power outages make it hard to get a good idea of the extent of the damage, authorities said.
All National Park Service beaches and the Ocracoke Health Center were closed.
'Historic' flooding hits northern OBX
Damage to N.C. 12 has also cut off access to all of the Outer Banks north of Duck, including Corolla and Carova Beach.
DOT officials said that about 100 feet of the highway were undermined near the Sunset Grille in Duck. There was no estimate on when repairs might be complete or when visitors and residents would be allowed to return.
Residents, critical workers and business owners are being allowed back into accessible areas of Dare County. However, visitors and the general public are not.
"We are really anxious to get back into town and see how everything is and how everyone is," said Kill Devil Hills resident Manny Perez.
Sound-side flooding hit hard from Manteo through Nags Head to northern Dare County.
"We have seen an historic tide from the south side in Kitty Hawk," Mayor Pro-Tem Gary Perry said.
Kill Devil Hills Mayor Ray Sturza said that sound waters reached his house for the first time in 25 years and were waist-high in his front yard.
Dare County's worst flooding happened in Colington Harbor, outside Kill Devil Hills, emergency management official Kathryn Bryan said.
Friends helped Billy and Judy Beasley clean up Billy's Seafood Groceries after 40 inches of water gushed into the store. They said the 41-year-old business weathered hurricanes Gloria, Charlie and Floyd and never saw that type of flooding.
"Makes you think about staying or going," Billy Beasley said.
"We just do the best we can, get it done when we can," Judy Beasley said.
Homes in the nearby Water's Edge community got 3 or 4 feet of water. Flooding also happened in Duck and Corolla, and roadways were littered with boats, tree limbs and debris.
Floodwaters rose waist-high in a number of businesses in downtown Manteo. All streets were passable Sunday, although standing water was left in some places.
Tom Clissold, who owns Poor Richards sandwich shop on Queen Elizabeth Avenue in Manteo, said this is the first time the restaurant has flooded since it opened in 1984.
"The smell is the first thing that hits you," he said. He watched surveillance video from inside the shop, which showed water building up outside before rushing into the restaurant about a foot deep. He hopes to reopen by Labor Day weekend.
Marcelo Ortega is also hoping to reopen his Manteo restaurant quickly. He tried to prepare for Irene by putting sandbags against the doors.
"Now they look more like tea bags," he said.
Meanwhile, in Manns Harbor, the rising floodwaters sent resident Amanda Grubbs into a panic. She's pregnant, and her due date was Saturday.
"It just came quick. In like five minutes, it was knee deep," she said. "We were worried. We weren't sure what was going to happen, but we made it, thank goodness. We were really thinking we were going to have a hurricane baby."
So far, no injuries have been reported.
Southern beaches battered by angry Atlantic, but escape major damage
The Crystal Coast, Bogue Banks and Wilmington area appear to have largely escaped major structural damage. Waters in flood-prone areas, including Morehead City, were receding Sunday.
"I've lived here 20 years (and) been through a lot of storms," said Morehead City resident Christie Seiler. "We've had a lot worse. We've had a lot better."
Author Jay Barnes, who wrote a definitive book about the state's hurricane history, also rode out Irene in Morehead City. He said the storm will go down in his next edition as memorable but not catastrophic. Still, he said, the tropical storm season is just getting started.
"In going back and looking at the history of storms through the years, North Carolina has had a number of years where we've been hit by two or more storms in the same season," Barnes said. "September is prime time for hurricanes, so we have to be diligent."
One of the most dramatic images following Irene is in Atlantic Beach, where violent surf ripped away 30 yards of the Sheraton Hotel's pier. About 200 feet of the Bogue Inlet pier in Emerald Isle was also lost in the sea. Private docks and piers on the sound side suffered damage as well.
In Atlantic Beach, one home was demolished, and downed trees fell on others. Vinyl siding and shingles were ripped from homes.
"I've been here before for storms, and damage has been a lot greater to buildings. This storm has been pretty good to us," said Tom Fernandez, of Pine Knoll Shores.
Fernandez and his neighbors decided to ride out the storm together.
"The reason we stay is it's a hassle getting back, and you want to know what's happened to your house as quickly as possible," he said.
The Emerald Isle and Atlantic Beach bridges were reopened Sunday night, and residents and the general public can access both beaches.
Beach erosion appeared to be not too severe there, authorities said. Older dunes came through the storm unscathed, but newer dunes built up through fencing in recent years suffered.
Pinehurst dentist Harwell Palmer, 53, said the worst that happened to his home at Ocean Isle Beach was losing a few pieces of siding that he was able to replace after riding out the storm. He said there was some street flooding, and high waves pounded the local pier, but it was still standing. Ocean Isle Beach missed a direct hit from Irene.
But Palmer was concerned for the beach itself, after heavy surf gobbled up shoreline.
"The main concern we will have going forward is the loss of beach," Palmer said.
Topsail Island was mainly spared by the storm, and residents were returning to their homes Sunday. Tom Vear and his wife said they were relieved to find their house still standing, although Irene was a reminder of the devastation they felt when Hurricane Fran ripped through the area in 1996.
"We missed the brunt of the thing, which is great. I feel bad for everybody else, because we know what it's like – we lost our first home (in Fran)," Vear said.
The New Hanover County area was the first to get hit by Hurricane Irene, and it was the first to return to business as usual.
"There's people on the beach. The waves are nice. There are plenty of surfers," Shelton Sledge, manager of Vito's Pizza in Wrightsville Beach, said Saturday. "Everybody's house seems to be good. Just glad to be back to normal."
New Hanover County Manager Bruce Shell said assessment teams got into the streets Saturday, but they found little to raise alarm and no evidence of serious damage. A wastewater spill at Wrightsville Beach also appeared to be minor.
"We were prepared for a lot worse, but we got lucky on this one," Shell said.
At the Shell Island Resort, however, the hurricane tore siding off the west side of the large hotel and doused it with heavy rains, causing ceiling tiles to leak. The lobby flooded and wind gusts busted some large windows.
"It does seem like Shell Island got hit worst out of anywhere on the island," said Nick Cavarogghi, who lives in a condominium at the resort.
The damage forced Shell Island to close until town officials deem it safe for people to return.
"We don't want guests in the building having a safety issue, so we're securing the building and doing what we need to do to protect owners and future guests," said facility manager Michael Harben.
Damage reports across NC
View Hurricane Irene damage reports in a larger map