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Hurricane Irene floods streets fast and hard in Manteo, N.C.

August 27, 2011 |  6:31 pm

Manteo, North Carolina

When the water finally rushed in from the deep sounds that bracket Roanoke Island, it came fast and hard.

In just 20 minutes Saturday evening, the brown waters of the Roanoke and Croatan sounds rose up and coursed sloppily through the narrow streets of Manteo on Roanoke Island.  Within an hour, water in the streets of the historic downtown went from less than an inch to 4 feet deep as Hurricane Irene blew one last blast as it passed to the north.

It took only a few minutes for the green grass in the yard of the stately Roanoke Island Inn downtown to disappear beneath the gurgling water. Soon gentle waves were lapping at the top of the porch steps, and the only the tips of the white picket fence were visible.

PHOTOS: In the path of Hurricane Irene

“Now that’s the highest I’ve ever seen it,” said John F. Wilson IV, the inn’s owner, staring into water littered with leaves and tree branches ripped from trees by high winds.

Wilson strapped on a pair of waders and sloshed through waist-high water in the back yard to retrieve a kayak that was floating toward the garden.

“Hey, John, there’s fish jumping out there,” hollered the inn’s manager, Dee Evans. “How about catching us one for dinner?”

The year-round residents of Manteo, population 7,000, figured they were due for serious flooding when Irene slowed Friday and Saturday, taking its sweet time to first blow water north and west out of Pamlico Sound, and then, as the storm departed north, blowing all that water straight back south and east across the island.

“If it stops where it is, we’ll be OK,” Wilson said, crouching to inspect the progress of the water just below his top step.

It wasn't too dire. There were no reported deaths or serious injuries in Dare County, which includes Roanoke Island and much of the Outer Banks, said county manager Bobby Outen. Property damage was light, he said, mostly roof shingles and siding and fallen trees.

“It's not nearly as bad as it could have been,” Outen said.

The water level seemed to stabilize as Billy Parker, an architect who handles repairs at the inn, climbed into a red kayak to paddle the two blocks into the old downtown district. He paddled back a few minutes later to report a half foot of water or so inside the bookshop, the sport shop, the gift shop, the barber and the local history museum.

But Parker also relayed good news to Terry McDowell, who lives just up the street from the inn but was spending the weekend there because she didn’t want to stay home alone during the storm. She was worried that her house was flooded.

“You’re OK,” Parker told her. “You’ve still got two steps showing.”

There was less encouraging news for Jay Ross and Sandy Semans, a married couple who retreated to the inn Friday from Stumpy Point, N.C., an exposed spit of land that juts into the Pamlico Sound. Ross called the Stumpy Point fire chief, who told him that his driveway was washed out and his dock was pretty much gone.  Most of Stumpy Point was underwater.

 “I’m glad we left,” he said. “Stumpy Point is a pretty serious flood zone right now.”

His wife, Semans, is the editor of the Outer Banks Sentinel. She had planned to spend the storm filing updates to the weekly’s website. But the power went out Saturday morning. The inn’s wireless connection conked out, and Semans’ laptop died for want of electricity.

Always the enterprising journalist, Semans phoned her daughter in Denver and dictated her dispatches. Her daughter posted the updates on the website.

“She loves it; she thinks it’s a hoot,” Semans said.

Because Manteo sits exposed between the sounds and the Outer Banks, it has flooded many times -– two or three times a year during heavy rains, Wilson said.

“But not like this; this is as deep as it gets,” he said.

He stole a look at the front steps.  The top step was still dry. “I’ve got another 14 inches,” he said. The inn, built in the 1860s, is just 8 feet above sea level.

By nightfall, the water seemed to have surrendered. The top front step remained inviolate.  Wilson and Parker had a quick discussion about cleaning up the grounds and a flooded bungalow before guests begin arriving next week. The place is fully booked for Labor Day weekend.

The floodwater would recede, as it always does, within a day or two, Wilson said.

The tree frogs were singing and the water was gently lapping as Wilson and Parker made dinner plans. The gas stove was working fine. They set about preparing an evening meal -- with candlelight, of course -- of Brunswick stew, an eastern North Carolina delicacy. “Maybe we should take the dinner table outside on the porch,”  Wilson said. “We could pretend we’re in Venice.”


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--David Zucchino in Manteo, N.C.

Photo: Two men use a boat to explore a street flooded by Hurricane Irene Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011, in Manteo, N.C. Credit: John Bazemore / Associated Press