The Virginia Pilot
August 29, 2011
RODANTHE, N.C. -- It was already dark when Justin O`Neal hopped onto his jet ski Saturday and began cruising through his flooded neighborhood, checking on relatives and curious to see what Hurricane Irene had done to Rodanthe.
He had no idea the storm, which had already been raging nearly 24 hours, was about to fill Hatteras Island`s northern villages with more water than old timers say they`ve ever seen.
By taking a path west of the island, Hurricane Irene sucked Pamlico Sound onto its western banks. When the wind finally shifted late Saturday, the storm released its hold and pushed the water east with destructive ferocity. Those who were there say it happened quick.
The power of the moving water tore a hole through a large section of N.C. 12 near Mirlo Beach, isolating the island and likely costing its businesses the remainder of the summer tourist season.
For O`Neal, it nearly cost him his life.
O`Neal, a rescue diver, said he was still in control when he reached his grandmother`s store, a 38-year-old building that had never flooded. Water several feet deep was pouring in. He remembers snapping a picture of some deer that had emerged, apparently in search of higher ground.
Moments later, O`Neal became caught in a rip current that cut through the North Beach Campground, headed straight for the ocean. The jet ski was powerless against the raging river.
"It was either me go with it or I had to ditch" the jet ski, he said Sunday. "It was unreal. I didn`t think I was going to make it back to the store."
O`Neal said he swam against a current in water above his head. He reached the campground`s bath house, caught his breath, then pressed on. By the time he reached his grandmother`s store, O`Neal was exhausted -- but alive.
The current carved a channel through the campground and pushed at least two RV campers out to sea. No one is believed to have been inside.
On the Outer Banks, Hatteras Island`s northern villages -- Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo -- appear to have taken the brunt of Hurricane Irene`s power.
Residents, many of whom did not evacuate, described a Saturday night flood that caught many off guard and vulnerable. Several people said an afternoon clearing must have been the hurricane`s eye passing over, fooling some into a false sense of security.
At least 800 yards of the key Outer Banks roadway was left a tangle of sand, water and crumbled tarmac in northern Rodanthe, stranding hundreds of residents on Hatteras Island who chose not to evacuate for Hurricane Irene.
The affected section section is at Mirlo Beach and called the `S` curves -- vulnerable because of its proximity to the ocean and known for washing out during severe weather.
Chuck Gregory of Waves, the next village south, said he was shocked by the damage.
"Wow," he said. "It`s going to be a long time before we get a road back here."
An island resident for more than 40 years, Joe Kierzkowski said Hurricane Irene pounded the island`s northern villages. Damage is noticeably worse there than on the island`s southern end.
The damage to N.C. 12 is unprecedented, Kierzkowski said. "This is the worst I`ve ever seen the `S turn,`" he said.
About 3 p.m. Saturday, Don Wray and some members of his family left the safety of their home in Salvo to check on damage at their restaurant in Rodanthe.
"The sky was blue. The wind wasn`t blowing. And I thought it was over," Wray said Sunday morning. "It came so quickly. We were just not ready for it."
In hindsight, Wray said he must have mistaken the eye of Hurricane Irene for the end of the storm. At the time, he said, radio reports led him to believe the hurricane had moved on to Virginia Beach.
Suddenly, water rushed into Sting Wray`s. The family climbed into their vehicle and started down the road. They traveled about 200 yards when it was clear they`d never make it to Salvo. If not for a nearby fire department opening its doors, the family would have been in serious trouble, Wray said. The water eventually rose to 8 feet.
"We were lucky," he said. "We`re breathing. That`s what counts."
Around the same time that Don Wray was checking on his restaurant, Jim Keen and his wife had decided to return to their mobile home in Salvo. They`d opted to ride out the storm in an oceanfront home but felt the storm had passed and it was safe to go home.
Sometime Saturday evening, Keen said the water began to rise around their trailer.
"I looked out the window. My wife`s car was floating," he said.
On Sunday, Keen said he thinks the combination of soundside flooding and storm surge -- likely enhanced by a high tide -- created a potentially devastating scenario for the people in Hatteras Island`s northern villages.
Michael Beveridge was cleaning up Sunday after Hurricane Irene flooded his house in Salvo. He said Hatteras Island will band together and recover.
"As long as the earth doesn`t shake and the wind doesn`t blow, we`ll be all right," he said. "We`re storm riders."
Dare County officials say a combination of heavy rains from Hurricane Irene and high tide are bringing extensive sound-side flooding to towns along the coast.
Dorothy Toolan of Dare County Emergency Management said assessment teams will determine the extent of the flooding. Toolan said there was extensive soundside flooding throughout the county.
She said residents were starting to feel at ease after the county endured the initial impact, only to experience the impact from the soundside waters.
Toolan also said there were no emergency calls for assistance because of the flooding. Irene also reached well inland to topple trees, flood towns and leave thousands without power.
Walnut Island flooded after the Currituck Sound rose about five feet above normal and inundated several homes. Some said it was the worst flooding ever there.
"This was the only piece of dry clothing I had left," said Donnie Woickelman of Walnut Island. "When we left last night the water was up to here."
Darrin Smith sat on his front porch where the water had reached the top of his foundation but not entered his house several blocks from the Currituck Sound shoreline. Cars in his driveway had been flooded, he said.
"It`s the highest I`ve seen in 43 years," Smith said.
One man was killed in Nash County after a tree limb fell on him outside his home Saturday morning as some outer bands from the storm brought near hurricane-force gusts more than 100 miles island. A child died when the vehicle she was in wrecked at an intersection in Goldsboro where Irene had knocked out power, authorities said.
Rescue crews continued to search Saturday for a man who jumped or fell into the Cape Fear River as the storm raged the night before, but did not find him.
Two other deaths were reported as the storm swept over the state, but authorities weren`t sure if the storm was to blame. A man had a heart attack while boarding up his windows in Onslow County and a man was killed when his car ran off the road and hit a tree in Pitt County.
More than 615,000 people were left without electricity Saturday evening, and utility crews warned it could be days before they were able to get everyone`s power back on. Officials said Irene lingered so long that there wasn`t time in daylight to do much damage assessment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
(c)2011 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
Story Image: A flooded road is seen in Hatteras Island, N.C., Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011, after Hurricane Irene swept through the area Saturday cutting the roadway in five locations. (Steve Helber, AP)
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