The worst of it hit at 3:38 in the morning, which was the moment when Darrell McCall, moving from bedroom to bedroom of his beachfront house seeking a corner safe from the rains of Floyd, saw the ocean marry the bay.
Hurricane Floyd was not the promised storm of the century, but it swept right over the barrier islands, the thin tissue of land that separates the Atlantic from the mainland. And McCall, one of perhaps six people who defied a mandatory evacuation order to stay on the island Thursday morning, declines to join those who would now belittle Floyd.
"It was a little different," said McCall, 59, who owns a nursery school as well as several beach properties. "People say hurricanes sound like a freight train. This one did, but it had another sound too: It made the wires whistle."
Gusts of up to 138 miles an hour did more than vibrate the overhead wires. Power and phone lines lay strewn all around the island today, and despite Carolina Power & Light Co.'s decision to import 7,000 linemen from 12 states, many areas could expect to be without juice until the weekend. At least four people died in North Carolina because of the storm, mostly from traffic accidents, state officials said.
A few beach communities began late today to permit residents to return to check their properties, but most said the evacuees would have to wait until at least Saturday while crews sought to lift downed power lines and flush contaminated water supplies.
McCall and his 83-year-old neighbor decided to ride out Floyd expressly so they could get to work fixing up houses that have taken one big beating after another in recent years. "My neighbor, he said he'd just as soon go this way as any other, so he stayed," McCall said. "Me, I got work to do on the house."
But dealing with a flooded basement and a few lost shingles was about as bad as it got on Wrightsville Beach, which took Floyd's most direct hit. One house lost half its roof, the wood peeled back like a sardine can. Another lost a bunch of windows. But that was it--except for widespread flooding that made roads throughout North Carolina treacherous and often impassable. Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. called it the worst flooding in state history.
The Tar River was recorded far above its 15-foot flood stage at the town of Rocky Mount, officials said. "Literally, the entire town appears to be flooded," said Eric Tolbert, director of state Center for Emergency Management. "When you're flying, as far as you can see, water."
Elsewhere in North Carolina, authorities said 700,000 people remained without electricity by nightfall, down from 1 million in the morning. Telephone service was cut off to entire counties in the southeastern portion of the state at times during the day, and I-95 and I-40 remained impassable.
For Joseph Burney and his family, in Shallotte, N.C., just across the border from Myrtle Beach, S.C., Floyd was about as bad as it could possibly have been. Burney, wife Edna, son Reggie and grandson Damian abandoned their house and went to a shelter when the water in the back yard rose four feet and started to lap against the back door at 11 p.m. Wednesday.
Twelve hours later, Burney was sitting on a small tractor at the edge of an acre-sized, Floyd-created lake watching Reggie and Michael McGriff, his daughter's fiance, wading toward him from the house towing mattresses laden with green plastic bags.
"The water was this high all through your house," McGriff told Burney, drawing an imaginary line at the top of his thighs. "The computer looked like it made it, but the sofa was floating around, your treadmill is underwater and there's gas and oil floating on the water. You can smell it."
A few miles south, large swatches of Myrtle Beach were also underwater, but in what was perhaps one of Floyd's crueler ironies, the oceanside amusement parks and tourist hotels escaped virtually unscathed: "Didn't even break a glass," said Jason Devereaux, proprietor of the Pier 14 restaurant perched on stilts extending 200 feet into the now placid Atlantic.
The effects of Floyd's winds were occasional along the coast of the Carolinas, evident in a periodic broken telephone pole, a sheet metal facade peeled from the front of a store or a street strewn with a green fuzz of shredded leaves.
The water damage, however, was pervasive. More than six inches of rain deluged South Carolina and more than twice that drenched parts of North Carolina in a little more than 24 hours. Highways along the coast were blocked with puddles six feet deep. Abandoned cars lay on their sides in culverts.
The Wilmington area got one-third of its average annual rainfall in 24 hours, as Floyd dumped 22 inches on the area. But despite wild winds, damage was spotty and moderate.
Floyd pushed into the Carolinas Wednesday night, already diminished from its Category 5 status. For more than eight hours, the storm was little more than a lot of rain and a lot of wind.
The rain sizzled like a pan of bacon, the wind whooshed like a strong summer breeze. And then, two hours into Thursday, as sudden as a blackout, Floyd's eye wall made landfall. Even in the dark, the change was visible and dramatic: The wind ratcheted up, from pleasant to painful, from calming to menacing.
But the wall--the most intense, tightest band of the storm before the incomprehensible calm of the eye itself--announced itself most of all with an otherworldly groan, a rumble that sounded more mechanical than natural, like a supersized steam engine gone mad. Worse than its noise was its constancy. It would not quit. It fought the wind and the rain for supremacy and it won handily.
Trees bent and sometimes split. Rooftops, especially the flimsy metal ones on gas stations, curled and flipped off. Parked cars shook like teenagers of yore doing the Twist.
And then, the moan eased, the rain halted, and the wind slowly subsided. At dawn, thick, low stratus clouds rolled across the skies so fast, they looked like a TV newscast's time-lapse video of 24 hours of weather--in real time. Gray and bulbous, the clouds looked low enough to ooze through most any house's attic. Until they too stopped and the sky turned farina white.
It was over. By 10 a.m., the sun peeped through, liked the view and decided to stay. As often happens following hurricanes, the day turned blissful--cloudless, crisp, clear. Everywhere, crews lifted tree branches out of the way, homeowners raked debris from their lawns and phone company workers labored to reconnect customers. It was a mess, but not so bad that Wrightsville Beach supervisor Billy Beasley couldn't take time to notice the steel gray of the bay water.
"You spend your whole life looking at this water, seeing certain colors different times of the year," he said. "And then you see this murky dark color. I never seen it before. It's something new in this world."
Staff writers Guy Gugliotta and Spencer Hsu contributed to this report.