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Slow Ophelia soaks North Carolina

Coastal residents return to survey storm's damage

SALTER PATH, N.C. -- Hurricane Ophelia, North Carolina's least welcome guest, refused again to leave yesterday, lashing the Outer Banks with rain and wind as coastal residents elsewhere returned to damaged houses and businesses.

Ophelia just ''beat us and beat us and beat us," one storm-weary resident said before the system was downgraded to a tropical storm last night when its sustained winds dropped to 70 miles per hour.

While the weakening storm's center was expected to stay just off shore, the northern side of Ophelia's eyewall, the ring of high wind surrounding the eye, could remain over the Outer Banks until midday today, the National Hurricane Center said.

Governor Mike Easley said gauging the scope of the damage was difficult because of the storm's slow path, first affecting the state's southeastern coast on Tuesday and then crawling north and east Wednesday and yesterday to its position off the Outer Banks.

''It's almost like working three different storms," Easley said.

More than 12,000 homes and businesses remained without power last evening in eastern North Carolina, utilities said. That was down from a peak of about 120,000 the previous night.

It appeared the mainland had dodged the severe flooding many had feared, but the wind and waves had taken a toll.

''We were not expecting this," said Laurie Garner, whose boyfriend's restaurant was severely damaged at Salter Path on Bogue Banks, southwest of Morehead City. ''It just beat us and beat us and beat us."

Salter Path Fire Captain Joey Frost estimated that as many as 25 people had to be rescued. In neighboring Emerald Isle, six houses were destroyed and more than 120 had major damage, Fire Captain Bill Walker said.

Ophelia, an erratic storm that has looped and meandered north since forming off the Florida coast last week, stalled early yesterday afternoon, then resumed a slow eastward drift toward the open ocean, the hurricane center said.

A hurricane warning for the North Carolina coast was reduced to a tropical storm warning, extending from Cape Lookout northward to Cape Charles Light, Va., including the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, the hurricane center said.

The storm was blamed for one traffic death. Earlier, a surfer disappeared in rough water off the coast of South Carolina.

On the Outer Banks, Dare County officials said Hatteras Island reported gusts to 95 miles per hour. Other than power outages, the island was in pretty good shape, said county spokeswoman Sharon Sullivan.

Farther north on the Outer Banks, most businesses remained open in Nags Head and Manteo, and a few people braved intermittent rain squalls to shop or check out the surf.

David Goddard, 58, of Ashburn, Va., said he was a bit disappointed in Ophelia.

''I'm a weather junkie," he said. ''I thought it was going to be worse than this."

Ocean water was not expected to wash over the islands, although coastal storm surge flooding of 4 feet to 6 feet above normal tide was expected, along with large and battering waves.

South of the Outer Banks, Ophelia had cleared out, and residents were able to begin surveying the damage.

At Salter Path on Bogue Banks, Ophelia had ripped off the back of Vernon Guthrie's Crab Shack. It was the sixth time in 30 years a storm has taken off that side of the restaurant.

''Yeah, we're going to rebuild; one more time ain't going to hurt," he said.

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