A flag at a hotel is whipped to shreds by strong winds as a message is left to guests, who have since departed, in Kill Devil Hills, Outer Banks, North Carolina. (Photo: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. (AP) — From North Carolina to New Jersey, Hurricane Irene's winds and storm surge fell short of the doomsday predictions. But the danger is far from over: With rivers still rising, severe flooding is feared across much of the East Coast over the next few days.
More than 4.5 million homes and businesses along the coast lost power, and at least 14 deaths were blamed on the storm.
With roads impassable because of high water and fallen trees, it could be days before the full extent of the damage is known. But as day broke Sunday, surprisingly light damage was reported in many places, with little more than downed trees and power lines.
"I think it's a little strong to say we dodged a bullet. However, it certainly could have turned out worse for the Hampton Roads area" in Virginia, said National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Montefusco.
At the same time, officials warned of the possibility of extreme flooding as runoff from the storm makes its way into creeks and rivers.
Irene brought six inches to a foot of rain to many places along the East Coast. In some areas, the ground was soggy even before the storm because of an extremely rainy August.
"We are going to look at a record flooding situation here, both at the shore and inland," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on ABC's "This Week."
The storm was still pummeling the New York City area and New England on Sunday morning, dropping below hurricane strength but still dangerous with 65 mph winds and heavy downpours.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell had initially warned that Irene could be a "catastrophic" monster with record storm surges of up to 8 feet.
But in Virginia Beach, the city posted on Twitter late Saturday that initial reports were promising, with the resort area suffering minimal damage. And in Ocean City, Md., Mayor Rick Meehan reported: "Scattered power outages. No reports of major damage!"
In Lusby, Md., Constellation Energy Nuclear Group said one of two nuclear reactors at Calvert Cliffs went off-line automatically because of Irene's winds. Constellation said the plant was safe.
Floodwaters were rising across New Jersey, and more than 2,000 National Guardsmen were helping with search and rescue work as officials assessed the damage. The Raritan River, which caused disastrous flooding after it was swelled by rain from Hurricane Floyd 12 years ago, was not expected to crest until Sunday evening.
Still, with skies clearing Sunday morning, some of those living on the coast were cautiously optimistic.
After spending the night hunkered down in his Pleasantville, N.J., home overnight without electricity, Harry Webber went outside in a fruitless search for place to buy a cup of coffee.
"I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of my town is still in one piece," he said.
Late last week, Irene was a fearsome Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of around 115 mph as it barreled across open water toward the East Coast. Forecasters predicted it could grow to a scarier Category 4 before blowing ashore.
By Friday, though, the storm began losing steam. It came ashore the next day in North Carolina a mere Category 1 with winds of about 85 mph, and had weakened into a tropical storm by the time its eye hit New York City on Sunday.
While the National Hurricane Center accurately predicted Irene's track, the agency's director acknowledged that forecasting the strength of the winds days in advance can be difficult because of the myriad factors involved.
"We're not completely sure how the interplay of various features is causing the strength of a storm to change," said Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center.
North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said that Irene inflicted significant damage along her state's coast, but that the full extent was unclear because some areas were unreachable because of high water or downed power lines.
Perdue planned an aerial tour Sunday of the hardest-hit counties after TV coverage showed downed trees, toppled utility poles and power lines and mangled awnings.
Officials in North Carolina's Dare County said they were advised there was extensive flooding that needed to be checked out.
Elsewhere, authorities suggested Irene didn't create the kind of havoc that had been anticipated.
"We were prepared for a lot worse, but we got lucky on this one," said Bruce Shell, New Hanover County, N.C., manager.
He said many of the 70,000 homes that lost power Saturday were back online in the evening and a wastewater spill at Wrightsville Beach appeared to be minor.
Pinehurst dentist Harwell Palmer said his home in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., lost a few pieces of siding and there was some street flooding, but a pier that took a pounding from the waves was still standing. The storm did gobble up some of the sand.
"The main concern we will have going forward is the loss of beach," he said.
The question still facing the region was whether Irene's effects over the next few days would match the mess left behind by such storms as Floyd and Isabel.
In 1999, Floyd dropped at least 15 inches of rain on eastern North Carolina. The flooding was the most damaging in the state's history, topping $3 billion in North Carolina. Four years later, Isabel brought hurricane conditions to eastern North Carolina and southeast Virginia, causing about $1 billion in damage.
In the resort town of Ocean City, Md., damage appeared minimal. A few small trees along a major road had been uprooted. Scattered piles of sand about two feet high covered areas of the boardwalk. The end of a wooden pier was sagging and a wooden railing was askew.
At the Quietstorm surf shop on the boardwalk, part of a wall where the shop's name is advertised had been torn off, exposing wiring and scattering insulation. Locals, though, said they had seen worse during ordinary storms.
"I think we dodged a bullet," said LeAnn Price.