Weakened but unbowed, Tropical Storm Dennis continued to lash coastal areas from Virginia to the Carolinas with gusting winds today, spitting rain for the third day in a row and taunting meteorologists who warned that the storm could still regain strength and become a hurricane again.
Dennis, which was downgraded to tropical storm status late Tuesday, remained nearly stalled less than 100 miles off the North Carolina coast, astounding weather experts and confounding residents who had put their lives on hold.
Along the coast from North Carolina to Delaware, three straight days of churning winds kept many beaches closed and carried away acres of sand, including the sand that once swelled in front of the Virginia Beach boardwalk. Crews in Ocean City, Md., spent the day clearing piles of drifted sand from the boardwalk and washing crusted salt from power lines.
In North Carolina, where President Clinton today declared nine counties eligible for federal disaster funds because of Dennis, some 5,000 people, mostly residents, who stayed on Hatteras Island after Sunday's evacuation order remained stranded when the only north-south highway became impassable. Dennis cut a trench several feet deep across a quarter-mile neck of land between Avon and Buxton, preventing a National Guard relief column from reaching three communities on the south end of the island with food, fuel and other supplies, the Associated Press reported.
The convoy braved ocean overwash and four-feet-deep sand to deliver 3,700 ready-to-eat meals to three fire stations north of Avon before turning back. "The ocean has come in and knocked the dunes down," Sgt. Joe Baker, of the National Guard, told the Associated Press.
With winds slowing to a peak of 60 mph today, Dennis's weakening force soothed homeowners and shopkeepers worried about their roofs and windows. But storm watchers continued to puzzle over the odd behavior of Dennis, which has been trapped by pressure fronts and forced to sit off the Carolina coast. No other hurricane or tropical storm has remained virtually locked in one place for so long in at least 25 years, weather experts said.
Dennis had weakened enough by this morning that officials at the National Hurricane Center in Miami had considered stripping it of its tropical storm status as well. But airborne observations showed that a storm eye may be reforming on its western side, a sign that Dennis is likely to remain a serious threat well into the weekend.
"It's still alive and well, as much as I would like it to die," said Jerry Garrell, the center's director. "It could still become a hurricane again."
The lingering threat nearly emptied the normally thronged streets and taffy shops of Virginia Beach, where dispirited shop owners cling to hope that the profitable Labor Day weekend will not be lost.
At one spot of high ground, just off Atlantic Avenue, several dozen workers braved sea spray and 40 mph gusts as they struggled to construct a 35-foot-high stage for the sixth annual American Music Festival. The first acts will perform indoors Thursday and Friday, but organizers still hope to have outdoor music Saturday.
"We never throw in the towel, even when we don't have a beach to build on," said Danielle Batdorf, associate director of Beach Events Productions. "The show is definitely going on."
Slackening wind and sparser rain today allowed many Virginia Beach stores and homeowners to repair scattered damage from earlier in the week, replacing signs torn from buildings and shingles shorn from roofs. Nearly empty tourist trolleys jangled along the waterfront, and hotels reported widespread cancellations.
With 25-foot wave crests and tides five feet above normal, scattered flooding still plagued some roads throughout the Tidewater region and the normally placid mouth of the Chesapeake Bay heaved and frothed in the persistent gales.
But officials in Virginia Beach and other communities were confident enough in Dennis's retreat that they decided against evacuation of low-lying neighborhoods.
Rachelle Columbus, a 34-year resident of Virginia Beach, marveled at the high seas and loss of beachfront, holding herself steady against the gusts pounding the town's boardwalk.
"I've never seen it hold on like this for so long," said Columbus, 44, a schoolteacher who came to check out the storm with her son and daughter. "The nor'easters really tear things up, too, but not usually for this long."
Despite its designation, Tropical Storm Dennis shares many characteristics with northeasters, the gales that routinely lash the area in winter. Cobb said that cold air from the north has helped slow Dennis down and prompt it to mimic a winter storm system.
But measurements of the storm's pace -- clocked at 5 mph or less today -- made it difficult for meteorologists to determine whether the storm was heading due west, southwest or even to the north. The lethargic speed also increases the chance that Dennis could suck up newly warmed water and air, recharging its hurricane potential.
Chuck Applebach, a spokesman for the City of Virginia Beach, said officials must wait until Dennis retreats entirely before fully assessing the seriousness of the beach erosion problem. But along the city's tourist strip, only scraps of beach have been left in the wake of tides that, in some places, licked at the front edge of the boardwalk.
One apparent exception was the oceanside neighborhood known as Sandbridge, which for years has been plagued by devastating floods and erosion. A new floodwall and beach-restoration project following Bonnie has helped the area weather this year's assault.
Elsewhere, residents and public officials were hoping the worst was over. "In general, it obviously seems to be an improving situation," said Clay Stamp, Ocean City's director of emergency management. "We're in much more of a cleanup mode today than a wait-and-see. . . . The fortunate thing I can say is we're not Nags Head, N.C."
Staff writer Jackie Spinner contributed to this report from Ocean City.