Residents in this over-saturated coastal region who have spent the past month fixing battered roofs, soaked basements and broken windows damaged by two summer hurricanes were spared another direct hit tonight when Hurricane Irene flirted with the shore line but veered surprisingly out to sea.
But authorities and homeowners still fretted that the six inches of water Irene's edges dumped on the region, which created minor flooding on lowlands and back roads tonight, would lead to more severe problems later this week.
Wilmington and its surrounding counties had been pounded by two hurricanes, Floyd and Dennis, during the past two months and officials had predicted that Irene would slam into the city at 10 tonight. But instead, the storm veered out to sea, and that time passed with only a constant drizzle.
"After what we've been through the past two months, this seems like a flop," said Lisa Green, 29, a clerk at a local gas station. But Dallas Alford, 24, who was filling his truck with gas, said his home, which had been flooded by Floyd, is surrounded by ankle-deep water: "The grounds are super-saturated. Just when I got the water pumped out, here came Irene."
This storm's rain and 75 mph winds were less extreme than those of its two predecessors, and it was losing force as it headed to sea. Although the storm had left 14 people dead in Cuba, the Bahamas and Florida, officials at the National Hurricane Center in Miami said it likely would skirt around Virginia, the District and Maryland without too much impact.
Still, officials in nearby Pender and Brunswick counties, both of which had roads that were still not fully passable after being submerged by Floyd, called for mandatory evacuations early today that sent thousands of residents inland, where conditions were not much better.
But in Wilmington, where officials called for a voluntary evacuation, most of the homeowners in Wrightsville Beach stayed put, closing shutters, tying down patio furniture and readying generators.
"This one's not as scary as Floyd, but it's depressing," said Mark Sheffield, 39, who has yet to repair the hardwood floors and washer and dryer that were damaged when Floyd flooded his basement last month. "You get to the point where you become almost complacent and say, 'Another one?' There's not much you can do. You watch on the Weather Channel and prepare for it."
Although Irene is classified as a Category 1 hurricane, the least severe on a scale of 1 to 5, North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. called a state of emergency and activated 300 National Guard troops.
For most of the daylight hours, the storm loomed as more of an ominous threat than reality, as the gray skies let loose only spurts of mild rain, followed by periods of calm. But even the mere threat was enough for folks to express their frustration about having their Sunday routine of church and professional football disrupted again by a drone of forecasters chattering about eyewalls and storm surges.
The region has been hit by five hurricanes in the past three years, starting with Bertha and Fran in 1996 and Bonnie in 1998, which preceded the two this year. New Hanover County, whose largest city is Wilmington, reported about $37 million in damage from Floyd, and nearby Pender County to the north had upward of $28 million in damage.
"From what we're hearing, this is the worst [set of storms] anyone can remember. No one can remember three evacuations in one year," said Scott Garner, an emergency management official in Brunswick County, an area south of Wilmington that ordered a mandatory evacuation today. The Brunswick Community Hospital still has a damaged roof, and dozens of homes were destroyed by Floyd.
"You don't feel like you can get ahead," Garner added. "Major roads were washed out [by Floyd]. We had temporary patches there and now those repairs are going to be gone again."
Richard Pasch, a specialist at the National Hurricane Center, said it is simply coincidence that Dennis and Floyd hit Wilmington, followed closely by Irene. There are an average of six hurricanes each season, Pasch said, but the number that strike land in certain cities is not predictable.
Hurricanes have become so common this year that many residents sounded almost blase today. Reports of Irene made the storm sound almost tame compared with Floyd, which was a Category 4 storm that brought winds of up to 138 mph and, all told in North Carolina, killed 49 people and destroyed 6,000 homes.
Sitting in the office of the quaint, wood-paneled Roberts Grocery Store in Wrightsville Beach, owner Bill Cross, 45, predicted that Irene would be a pussycat by comparison to Floyd, which left 13 inches of rainwater in his store and caused $175,000 in damage.
"I think people who have lived here an extended period of time are just taking it in stride," he said. "It's one of the costs of living in a resort area. Some newcomers are burnt out. I heard some say they've had it after Floyd, that they're putting their houses up for sale." Farther inland at Dorothy B. Johnson Elementary, one of two shelters set up by county officials for those who chose to heed the voluntary evacuation warnings, only about two dozen people showed up, far less than the 300-plus that showed up at six sites during Floyd.
One of those who did take shelter was Melinda Jackson, who brought her son, Daren, 7, to be on the safe side. "I don't want to take any chances," she said. Daren added: "There's a tree in my back yard and I'm worried it's gonna fall on my house and my dog and cat might be trapped." Bill Clontz, spokesman for New Hanover County, applauded the Jacksons for heeding the evacuation warning and added that residents should not become complacent about hurricanes because even the tamest can be destructive.
"From a public safety perspective, you have to keep in mind even a low-level hurricane like this is potentially dangerous," he said.
But today, many just couldn't muster the effort to leave for a third time. As the afternoon wore on, dozens of residents wandered out to the beach, where fast-rising gray waves crashed high along the eroded shore line. Despite the rain, people flew colorful kites, walked their dogs, and some even surfed.
It was a little piece of normalcy in a region where the daily routine lately has been anything but predictable.
CAPTION: Steve Englerth walks through water on a street in Conway, S.C. The storm slid along South Carolina's coast during the day as it headed north.
CAPTION: Vincent Parker comforts his 1-year-old daughter, Linda Faye Holmes, at a shelter in Rocky Mount, N.C. The family, who lost their Princeville home in flooding after Hurricane Floyd, has been living in a government-provided trailer.