Hurricane Dennis stalked the North Carolina coast today, bringing pelting rains, blustering winds and massive power outages, but never quite roaring ashore to deliver its full punch.

Yet the medium-strength hurricane, the second to strike the United States in a week, remained steadfast -- and unpredictable -- even as it toyed with coastal residents and tourism from northern Florida to Rehoboth Beach, Del. It maintained winds of nearly 100 mph and never quite made a complete exit, either. Two deaths were attributed to the storm.

Although the hurricane mercifully had veered to the northeast overnight as it approached the Carolinas, keeping the eye and its very fiercest winds safely over the Atlantic Ocean, it was big and broad enough that its outer bands of wind-tossed rain flooded many low-lying areas along coastal North Carolina. In some spots, rain poured down at the rate of 3 inches an hour, turning streets into rushing rivers.

Winds of up to tropical-storm force, as high as 74 mph, reached 185 miles outward from the storm's center. That, combined with gusts of up to 110 mph, was enough to send roof shingles flying and tree branches and electrical lines snapping, but overall, damage apparently was minor. More than 50,000 customers were without power today from here in New Hanover County to as far west as Raleigh in the central part of the state, utilities reported.

Farther up the coast, in Virginia Beach, Va., Ocean City, Md., and Rehoboth Beach, Del., residents and vacationers alike today braced themselves for the unknown, as forecasters could not say for certain that they would be spared a visit from Dennis. A heavy surf closed the beaches to swimming, and glowering skies and gusty winds discouraged tourists who could not make up their minds whether to stay or go home. The strong winds toppled power lines, leaving thousands without electricity in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia.

A tropical storm warning remained in effect from North Carolina to Chincoteague, Va., tonight, with likely winds of 39 to 74 mph. Late tonight, the storm was moving east-northeast at a 14 mph clip and was situated about 145 miles east of Cape Hatteras, N.C. Winds had dropped somewhat to 90 mph, making Dennis a Category 1 storm, on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 the strongest.

When it might drift out to sea and disappear from the lives of water-logged, hurricane-weary residents, however, still remained a mystery. Ominously, there were some indications Dennis might slow down and linger off the coast, and possibly even turn west and threaten parts of the mid-Atlantic states again in a few days' time.

"That's not certain, but it is a possibility," said Jack Beven, a hurricane specialist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "The other weather patterns around the hurricane are going to change over the next several days. An upper-level trough of low pressure that has picked up the storm right now is going to leave the storm behind, and nothing else is going to come to pick it up. What's going to happen in the next couple of days is the big question."

If the storm were to head back westward toward land, that would be "unusual," but not unheard of, Beven said. The good news was that Dennis was not threatening to intensify into a major hurricane any time soon.

The hurricane was responsible for two deaths today in the town of Richlands, N.C., north of Jacksonville on the mainland, when high winds and heavy rains caused a head-on auto collision, police said.

The storm did disrupt late-summer vacations up and down the coast, including that of Vice President Gore and his family, who had been vacationing on Figure Eight Island, N.C. They beat a hasty retreat Sunday afternoon, on the advice of military aides in contact with meteorologists.

At North Carolina's Wrightsville Beach, about 10 miles from here, huge, swollen waves chipped away at the fragile, already-shrinking beaches. The scene was repeated at Atlantic Beach near Morehead City, N.C., and along the Outer Banks, as forecasters agreed that the surf damage from Dennis might prove to be the storm's greatest impact.

At Wrightsville Beach this afternoon, gusts of wind spat sand into the mouths and eyebrows of residents who had returned to the barrier island after being evacuated Sunday night and were drawn to the spectacle of the tumultuous waves heaving onto the beach. Dennis was the fourth hurricane since 1996 that the 3,000 residents here have had to endure, and most were counting their blessings today, noting that there were not even many broken windows or uprooted shrubs to speak of.

"This is nothing compared to Bertha or Fran or Bonnie," said Justin Green, 18, naming the other recent hurricanes that have attacked the area. He and his family chose not to evacuate and passed a rather uneventful night as the storm chugged past. "It was nothing. It wasn't even constant wind, just gusts. But the beach definitely looks smaller."

A competitive surfer, Green eyed the wild sea and contemplated his next move. "Let's go get our boards and our wet suits and get out there," he said to a couple of his friends. "It looks great."

Not far away, Bernie and Kay Morgan were completing the more prosaic task of unloading their car after a night spent with friends an hour inland. After 22 hurricane seasons, they felt qualified to judge this hurricane experience as very mild.

"We lost our pier with Bonnie and Fran," said Bernie, a dentist.

"Usually our yard is full of marsh grass, and this time, there's no marsh grass at all, nothing," said Kay, a homemaker.

Just to be safe, however, they decided to leave up most of their storm shutters to see what happened next in this unpredictable hurricane season; no need to take them down too early.

Up the coast in Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks, Mary Harrison listened to the afternoon winds howling and the rain streaming down as that area began to feel Dennis's bite.

"Signs are blowing down, and shingles off of houses, and part of the beach road is underwater," said Harrison, assistant manager at the Ace Hardware store. Although much of the area had been evacuated, she chose not to leave. "I'm staying. It's too late to go anywhere, and where would you go?"

Along coastal Virginia and Maryland, on the waiting fringe of the current hurricane zone, the few who ventured out today leaned hard into the winds, which gusted to 55 mph.

"Half the beach is closed," said Charlie Keyes, who manages the Sunsations Beach Shop in Virginia Beach. Although the store specializes in T-shirts and sunglasses, it was doing a brisker business today in groceries and heavier sweats.

"My truck was rocking, I was afraid to get out," Keyes said of the kicked-up winds. "This much wind is going to loosen some stuff up."

Twelve-year-old Jesse Strickland, of Manassas could attest to that. He walked backward down Virginia Beach's main drag after tumbling debris struck him in the eye. He, like many vacationers, was staying put in hopes the storm would blow over.

"It is pretty fun to be right about to be hit by a hurricane," he said. ". . . Never had that happen before."

But Peter and Myong Kim of Springfield were calling it quits. They had planned to spend most of the weekend vacationing in Ocean City with their 11-year-old daughter, Alicia. But after spending one night at the Maryland resort town, the Kims decided to head home. An attempt to salvage the trip with a look-see stop at Rehoboth Beach proved fruitless. They thought the surf would be better there. It wasn't.

"It was a mess in Ocean City and it's a mess here," said Peter Kim. "We're going home."

Staff writers Craig Timberg in Virginia Beach and Jackie Spinner in Rehoboth Beach and special correspondent Catharine Skipp in Miami contributed to this report.