Like its predecessors Dennis and Floyd, Hurricane Irene seemed determined to stay alive as a potent storm, delivering a final kick to Florida's east coast before heading into the Atlantic to menace the storm-worn Carolinas.
The forecast could not have been more grim for the Wilmington area and other parts of eastern North Carolina, which have barely begun to recover from the ruins brought by Dennis's two go-rounds earlier in the season and Floyd's historic flooding last month: landfall in Wilmington on Sunday night. Again.
"It's unbelievable--three in one year. That's something," said Mayor Avery Roberts Jr. of Wrightsville Beach, N.C., who woke up this morning dismayed to discover that his resort town of 3,000 near Wilmington was again targeted on the hurricane map.
In Florida, the storm left at least six people dead, including a mother in the Broward County town of Weston who was electrocuted Friday night along with her 11-year-old twin sons and a playmate. The three boys apparently had stepped into a puddle that was electrified by a downed power line.
"It's very sad. The mother died trying to save them," said Janet Dennis of the Florida state emergency operations center in Tallahassee.
Four people drowned in the Bahamas and four others were feared dead in Cuba after Irene struck the western edge of the country on Thursday, flattening tobacco fields and flooding roads with a surprising intensity of wind and rain.
Irene was expected to retain much of that intensity as it sped toward the Carolinas, bringing maximum winds of 80 mph and four to six inches of rain to an area that still has not dried out from its last hurricane. The storm did not diminish even as it scoured central and eastern swaths of the Florida peninsula Friday and today, dumping 20 inches of rain in some parts of Miami-Dade County. And it could make its impact felt as far north as New England in a few days, said forecasters with the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
"It's not going to be a replay of Floyd, we hope," said center meteorologist Hugh Willoughby, referring to the most recent flood-producing storm that left 49 people dead in North Carolina and has been described as the state's costliest disaster. "But we'll have to see how it pans out."
In Florida, Irene was a massive rainmaker from the start, soaking the Keys on Friday before touching shore at Cape Sable near the southwest tip of the state and turning unexpectedly east toward the population centers of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach.
At its peak, 1.5 million homes lost electrical power, tree branches snapped and flew through the air, and residents huddled in their homes, shocked at the staying power of the howling winds outside. Afterward, many parts of Miami looked like the Everglades, covered with deep pools of water. Cars were stranded, basements were waterlogged and some residents complained that, this time, they had not been adequately warned that the storm could be so destructive and dangerous.
"The thing that made everybody angry, they gave us two days' warning with Floyd, and nothing happened," said Miami resident Denise Ellixson, whose back yard turned into a four-foot-deep lake Friday night, while her basement, with its four bedrooms and home office, was hopelessly flooded.
"We didn't know this one was coming," she said, furiously raking her lawn of leaves and tree branches this afternoon. "We went to work yesterday. We didn't even have time to pack the children's toys away on the patio when we got home."
Forecasters didn't upgrade to a warning the hurricane watch that was in effect because hurricane-force winds were not expected in populated areas. The 60-mph winds that residents encountered fell short of the 74 mph required to merit hurricane status. In addition, Irene changed course unexpectedly, catching Floridians off guard.
In North Carolina, which has weathered five hurricanes since 1996, residents began steeling themselves today for yet another bad storm. Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. declared a state of emergency. Shelters opened and emergency management officials met to issue evacuation orders in vulnerable parts of Brunswick, New Hanover and Onslow counties. A gloomy rain already was falling on large sections of eastern North Carolina.
Among the first evacuees today were the homeless victims of Floyd, hundreds of families the state put up in camper-trailer villages assembled in three counties. It was hard to tell them that they would have to pack up and move to a shelter again so soon, said Tom Hegele, spokesman for the state emergency response team, but there was nothing else to be done.
"That was sad," he said. "You just get them into a temporary place and then you have to turn around and tell them, 'Sorry, you've got to leave.' "
Hegele said the agency was issuing a warning to all coastal residents, no matter how savvy they think they've gotten at hurricane survival. "Take this one seriously," he said. "We don't want people to become complacent."