After lashing the North Carolina coast for two days and testing the post-Katrina readiness of disaster agencies, Hurricane Ophelia appeared on Thursday to be weakening and heading back out to sea.
Although the Outer Banks islands of Ocracoke and Hatteras were still in danger of heavy winds and surging water, the hurricane's slow and meandering path spared most coastal areas of the severe flooding that had been predicted.
By evening, its winds were blowing about 75 mph, just enough to earn Ophelia classification as a hurricane. Authorities blamed one death on the storm, from a rain-slicked traffic accident inland near the state capital of Raleigh.
A hurricane warning for North Carolina's coast was scaled back to a tropical storm warning, which extended north to Cape Charles Light, Va., including the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. With the storm tracking to the north, a tropical storm watch was issued for southeastern Massachusetts, including Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.
But here on the Outer Banks, residents were breathing easier: Ophelia turned out to be more like a drunken sailor than a belligerent one, bumping and bruising the coast before staggering off in circles.
Watching its movement on weather radar was like "watching someone make a funnel cake, just dripping the batter all around," said Tony Spencer, emergency management director for North Carolina's coastal Hyde County.
Determined to avoid a repeat of the response to Hurricane Katrina, federal, state and local authorities had gone into high gear early in the week.
They positioned five swift-water rescue teams, each made up of 50 National Guardsmen, a few miles inland along the state's entire coast. They ordered evacuations in dozens of low-lying areas, bringing 2,000 people into 45 shelters at schools and community centers Wednesday night, according to Bill Furney, spokesman for the state Division of Emergency Management.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, still under fire for its response to Katrina, stationed 250 workers along the coast and put Coast Guard Rear Adm. Brian Peterman in charge of the federal response to the hurricane.
But as Ophelia stayed off the coast and slowly moved north, parallel to the barrier islands, coastal communities began cleaning up fallen debris and counting their blessings.
"All of our roads are passable. All our shelters are closed, and people have gone home," said Rose Faucette, an emergency worker in Beaufort County, which has been pummeled by past hurricanes, including Isabel in 2003. "We were very lucky."
State officials said Ophelia knocked out electricity to 240,000 customers on Wednesday. By Thursday morning, the number without power was down to 80,000, and utility crews were quickly restoring telephone and electrical lines.
The biggest remaining concern was an expected surge of water Thursday night from the Pamlico Sound across the southern Outer Banks, which officials feared could flood beach houses and cut off roads. "That's when you'll see most of the flooding," Gov. Mike Easley (D) said at a morning briefing.
Earlier, the hurricane's sustained winds had blown the water toward the mainland, exposing as much as a mile of sand on the bay side of Hatteras Island.
Despite a mandatory evacuation on Hatteras and Ocracoke, hundreds of local residents remained in their homes. Here in Buxton, a small town on Hatteras, Keith Gray, 40, put on an orange anorak and went scavenging with his son, Aaron, 16, for valuables in the exposed sand.
The wind blew out a side window of their pickup truck, but they pulled a claw hammer and some other tools from the empty basin of the Buxton Harbor Marina, where half a dozen boats were sitting on their exposed keels. They had to shout to be heard in the 60-mph wind.
"Is that a jet?" Aaron asked, looking up as a powerful gust swirled sand against his bare legs.
"Just the wind," his father said.