Dennis, the storm that refused to leave, continued to harass North Carolina's Outer Banks today, after chipping away at the narrow beaches, leaving portions of the main road, Highway 12, mired in seawater and sand--and ruining Labor Day vacation plans for thousands of tourists. But conditions did seem to be improving in many areas.

The tropical storm, which was downgraded Tuesday evening from a hurricane but still managed to pack strong 60-mph winds, lingered off the coast today for the fifth straight day. Although it was adrift and barely moving late tonight from its position 160 miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, forecasters were saying once again that it could very well turn westward within the next day and a half and deliver a direct hit to the North Carolina coast.

That, of course, was the last thing anyone wanted to hear.

"People are starting to get a little storm-weary," said Robert Carver, a spokesman for the North Carolina emergency response team. "We're really ready for it to go away."

State officials do not yet have an estimate of the damage wrought by Dennis, Carver said. "But it certainly seems significant," he added, noting that the pounding surf continues to be a major destructive force.

There was a bit of good news to report, nevertheless. North Carolina Highway 12, the only north-south route through much of the 130 miles of barrier islands, remained a mess today; at its worst, it was clogged with chest-high sand in spots near Buxton and the famed Cape Hatteras lighthouse.

But enough work had been done on the damaged road--by 400 workers, including 200 prison inmates--that the estimated 5,000 residents and tourists who had been stranded in the Buxton area were allowed to come and go again today in four-wheel-drive vehicles. On Thursday, National Guard convoys, working at low tide, had brought military ready-to-eat meals and bottled water to the isolated group. Most of the people there had simply ignored orders Sunday to evacuate.

Ocracoke Island also was accessible today for the first time since Sunday's evacuation, when the ferry from Swan Quarter began running again, Carver said. Neither Hatteras or Ocracoke, however, was in any shape to welcome new flocks of tourists, and residents were required to show identification to reenter, he said.

Evacuation orders were lifted today as well in certain neighborhoods here, farther north, in Nags Head and in Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills, and merchants and hotel owners were encouraging tourists to give them another chance.

Electrical power and water service have been restored to much of the Outer Banks, and many shops and restaurants have reopened, although some telephone and cable television services remained out.

It was not such a bad day here in Nags Head, as hotel workers and residents began to take down the plywood protection from windows and pick up the debris, including dead sea gulls, left by the worst of the storm. Although the morning was squally, with sudden heavy rains, the afternoon skies shone a milky blue, and merchants and hotel managers--many with bookings for half their rooms--were beginning to hope that they could salvage something from the holiday weekend.

"This is what you live with on the Outer Banks," shrugged Chris Markley, manager of the Sea Oatel in Nags Head. "We're not going to be full, by any means. . . . At least you can walk on the beach now--you couldn't even do that earlier in the week--and the waves are not as big right now."

But the fact that Dennis was still out there, fairly close by and threatening in the Atlantic, remained something of a meteorological rarity. A tropical storm warning remained in effect from North Carolina's Cape Lookout to the Oregon Inlet, including the Pamlico Sound, and Dennis was still creating high surf two to four feet above tide levels, said Giovannie Alexander, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

The upper-level steering currents that normally help to move storm systems to the northeast away from the coast are unusually weak, Alexander said, and because of this, Dennis is not going anywhere.

"It is definitely rare for a system to linger along the East Coast this long," Alexander said. "Normally, a trough of low pressure picks it up and kicks it out to sea, but not this time."

Today's relatively pleasant weather, however, came just in time for the end of David and Laura Dillard's vacation. The Richmond couple, along with their 18-year-old son, Josh, had withstood the week in their time-share condominium in Duck, north of here, and experienced a few scary moments.

"Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were pretty bad," said David Dillard. "It was all you could do to stand up, the winds were so strong. I saw a lifeguard-stand on its side, and two hours later, it was crumbling apart and off to sea."

Josh had a rough week, in particular, his mother said.

For one thing, he could not go into the ocean. He had to make do with the indoor pool.

"And then there was no cable," Laura Dillard said. "He's been suffering."