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Even amid Hurricane Irene's battering, a sense of relief in N.C.

August 27, 2011 |  1:57 pm

North Carolina

As the Saturday wore on along North Carolina’s southeastern coast, Irene continued to impress with its staying power, with the back end of the storm kicking up car-shuddering gusts and pelting rain into the late afternoon.

But people here were also beginning to think that maybe they’d gotten off easier than they had dared to hope on Friday.

On Harkers Island in Carteret County, just north of Irene’s landfall point on Cape Lookout, locals pulled in and out of the Seaside general store and restaurant, trudging inside in rubber boots to buy gas, cigarettes and beer. Owner Barry Guthrie, 52, had  set up a generator at around 5:30 a.m., and then brought in five workers to squeegee out the couple of inches of water that had invaded the place.

PHOTOS: In the path of Hurricane Irene

View Hurricane Irene track forecast in a larger map

By afternoon, he figured the region had lucked out, more or less.

“There’s some trees down, but other than that...” he said.

From the island’s main road, there was little evidence of serious flooding, and most of the modest whitewashed houses and commercial buildings showed little damage, even as an incessant, violent wind whipped the tree limbs into a writhing visual cacophony of green. A few signs were bent or broken, but spray paint on the boards of the closed-up fire station boasted:  “Bring it on, Irene!”

The mood was equally defiant a few miles away at Sammy’s Seafood House and Oyster Bar in downtown Morehead City. In the afternoon, owner Sammy Boyd -- the big-boned, blond, blue-eyed proprietor -- sat at the wooden bar he built himself, putting away a steak lunch.

From out his window one could see the white-capped waves whipping across Bogue Sound. The wind made a weird, pitch-shifting whistle outside. The streets were empty, and Sammy’s competitors on this touristy strip -- the Ruddy Duck, the Sanitary -- were boarded up and closed.

But Boyd -- a former commercial fisherman who gave it up for the restaurant business about a year ago -- declared he was open for business.

The restaurant was empty, and there was no electricity -- his chef, “Fajita” Mike  Garner, was cooking with gas  -- but Boyd wasn’t complaining. Unlike fishing for a living, the 40-year-old said, “This is a controlled environment -- you’re not exposed to the elements. This is easy as hell.”

He had been watching the storm closely, but had a feeling it wasn’t going to be the end of the world down here. A Category 4 or 5, he said, and he would have run.

But a Category 1? He kept the place open late into Friday night too.

“We’d a had plenty of business, but the town made the cabs quit running,” he said. “To me, it felt like a regular old bout of wind and rain.”

Around the block, Don and Nell Thompson were standing in the rain, taking stock of the damage to the building that houses their business, Seaport Antiques. It wasn’t as bad as they thought: some pieces of the roof dislodged, some aluminum siding torn off.

Nell, 64, said that a less-ballyhooed storm a few years ago broke out their big front windows and peeled back the roof.

With hours more storm in front of her, however, she knew that it was too early to breathe easy.

“We don’t feel like it’s over yet,” she said. “But we’re hoping.”


600 elderly refuse to evacuate

Death toll hits 5; boy killed by tree

Octogenarian couple refuses to leave home in North Carolina

 --Richard Fausset in Harkers Island, NC

Photo: Hurricane Irene was leaving its mark on North Carolina, but perhaps not as big a mark as many had feared. Jackie Sparnackel had to abandon her van and her belongings near the Frisco Pier in Frisco, N.C., after she drove up to see how the storm-battered structure was doing. Credit: Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT