It was just a week ago that Job Conner finally got rid of the thigh-deep, muddy-brown water that was surrounding his house, an unfriendly deposit left by Hurricane Floyd a month ago. But today, he woke up to find that it was all back, courtesy of Hurricane Irene, which dumped another half a foot of rain Sunday night on this tiny town along the Cape Fear River.
Town Manager Jim Freeman shook his head as he surveyed the water damage caused by Irene at Conner's house and others like it. Irene was the third hurricane in two months to spur flooding in this town of 4,000 people.
"All the hurricanes we had [in previous years] left a lot of debris to pick up, and wind damage," said Freeman. "There's not as much debris, but the water has hit us by surprise. We haven't been prepared for it."
Officials here worried that the Cape Fear River, which was expected to crest at 30 feet higher than normal later this week, would top its banks and cause more flooding. And there were other signs of damage from the storm. Across town from Conner's house, the Highway 87 business route was shut down because of a large crack in the surface; the sewage plant lost a pumping station; and 25-acre Tory Hole Park was already flooded, looking like a man-made pond.
This town, about 40 miles west of Wilmington, and its neighbors in eastern North Carolina were spared the worst from Irene. The hurricane never came ashore, although it dropped as much as 11 inches of rain on parts of the region before moving farther out into the Atlantic Ocean. As of 11 p.m., Irene was 350 miles southwest of Cape Race, Newfoundland, moving east-northeast at 63 mph.
Irene, a relatively weak but very wet hurricane, was blamed for at least 15 deaths in Cuba, the Bahamas and Florida last week. Authorities blamed the storm for a single death in North Carolina, that of a motorist whose car hit a tree.
There were a few fallen trees, downed power lines and even fewer automobile accidents blamed on the hurricane. But as the people of this region know, the biggest difficulties from a hurricane often occur after it's gone.
"Really, it's just beginning," said Elliott Henry, 76, a tobacco farmer who lives in nearby Kelly. "The crops are damaged. No harvest this year."
With nearly 97 roads still closed from flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd last month, state authorities were closely watching the Tar, Neuse and Cape Fear rivers, which they said likely will crest high enough during the week to flood several towns, including Clayton, Smithfield and Fayetteville.
In the His/Hers Barber Shop on Poplar Street, forester Ronald Age, 54, said that Route 242 in Bladenboro was flooded, its access blocked with a fire truck at one end and a tractor trailer at the other. In fact, conditions in the forests are so swampy that Age's company cannot do business. With him was his daughter, Rosella, 7, whose school was closed for the day because of concerns about flash flooding.
She has missed classes because of Hurricane Dennis in August and Floyd last month. And there was another storm that could possibly come her way.
"I'm worried about Hurricane Jose," fretted Rosella, referring to Tropical Storm Jose. It was about 185 miles east of Barbados this evening and is expected to reach hurricane status in the next couple of days.
CAPTION: The pier at Rodanthe, N.C., lost a 40-foot section after being pounded by hurricanes Dennis and Floyd, then was battered by the heavy surf caused by Irene.