Hurricane Irene: First two deaths from storm are reported

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The first two deaths from Hurricane Irene, and a potential third, were reported in North Carolina on Saturday morning as the slow-moving storm raked the eastern half of the state, spawning tornadoes and knocking out power to more than 200,000 people.

A man in Nash County, N.C., was reported killed by a falling tree limb outside his home Saturday morning, local authorities said. On Friday, a man installing plywood on the window of his home in Onslow County, N.C., died of a heart attack, said Ernie Seneca of the North Carolina Emergency Management office in Raleigh.


View Hurricane Irene track forecast in a larger mapMeanwhile, authorities in New Hanover County were searching for a third man who either fell or jumped into the Cape Fear River on Friday as the first, outer bands of the storm began to ravage the area. A rescue team was sent out to find the man, but it had to be brought back in due to the rough conditions, according to Michelle Harrell, an emergency operations staff member there.

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County officials were still waiting Saturday to send a boat out again, but Harrell said it would not be considered a rescue mission.

“It is now more of a recovery mission,” she said.

Details of the incidents were sketchy Saturday, and others may soon come: Irene made landfall at Cape Lookout, N.C., at 7:30 a.m. as a Category 1 storm. In coastal Morehead City, the front line of winds whipped through in the early morning, followed by a lull of a couple of hours, and then what appears to be a much more intense lashing from the hurricane’s back end, which was ongoing at noon Eastern time.

As Irene roared slowly up the wide Pamlico Sound on Saturday morning, it was pushing out huge volumes of water that flooded roads and knocked down power lines. At least 225,000 people were without power, “and that number is going to rise as the day goes on,” Seneca said.

Several tornadoes were believed to have touched down late Friday and early Saturday, damaging three structures in Washington County, N.C., and knocking a mobile home off its foundation in Belhaven, N.C., near the coast. Another possible tornado damaged a waste-water plant and seven homes in Tyrrell County, N.C., Seneca said.

Eastern North Carolina remained under a tornado watch Saturday morning.

The state faced a long day of high winds and severe flooding as Irene, chugging at just 14 miles an hour, headed northward. North Carolina opened 81 shelters for some 7,500 evacuees, Seneca said. “We’re expecting hurricane force winds throughout the day, then tropical force winds overnight,” Seneca said.

Bands of high winds and heavy rains buffeted the northern Outer Banks overnight and throughout the morning Saturday. The town of Manteo, on Roanoke Island, a few miles west of Nags Head on the Outer Banks, lies directly in the path of the storm.

Forecasters predicted storm surges of five to nine feet and rainfall of six to 10 inches -– 15 inches in some places -– as the back end of the storm forces water out of Pamlico Sound and back across Roanoke Island and Outer Banks beaches.

North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue warned residents to stay indoors and avoid the temptation to drive around and check the progress of the storm.

“We’ve had reports of folks who are beginning to venture out,” Perdue told reporters. “You endanger your safety and the safety of the first responders who might come and try to rescue you.”

In North Carolina’s southeastern counties, however, there was already an emerging sense that worst-case scenarios had been avoided, at least locally, even though tens of thousands of residents were without power. Populous New Hanover County was being battered Saturday morning by tropical storm-force winds -– winds just below hurricane force, at 57 to 74 mph –- but Harrell said those winds were expected to abate by 1 p.m. or 2 p.m.

Damage countywide has been “minimal,” she said, although 55% of county residents are without power.

In general, she said, “We’re all very happy.”


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-- David Zucchino in Manteo, N.C., and Richard Fausset in Morehead City, N.C.

News & Observe / Associated Press