WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) _ Hurricane Irene drenched southeastern North Carolina with more than a half foot of rain Sunday before heading out to sea, unleashing more flooding in a region still saturated by record floodwaters from Hurricane Floyd.

As the storm turned east and its strongest winds moved away from land, the National Weather Service dropped hurricane warnings at 11 p.m. Tropical storm warnings remained in effect for most of the North Carolina coast.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said it appeared increasingly likely that Irene and its 75 mph winds might skirt the North Carolina coast without coming ashore.

``It's moving more toward the east, but it could be very close to the Cape Lookout area in the early morning hours. That's what it looks like,'' said meteorologist Bill Frederick.

A flurry of beach town evacuations preceded the storm, North Carolina's third hurricane in two months. Torrential rains in front of Irene's core swamped dozens of roads, and National Guard troops were called out to sandbag against rising flood waters.

A tornado spawned by the hurricane touched down near the town of Weeksville in Pasquotank County at about 6:40 p.m., destroying six homes and damaging several more. One person suffered minor injuries.

The greatest concern was rain, not wind, and the eastern coastal plain, inundated by Hurricane Floyd just four weeks ago, was especially vulnerable to more flooding.

Up to 7 inches had fallen in parts of eastern North Carolina by Sunday night, said the National Weather Service.

State public safety secretary Richard Moore said the worst flooding was expected in the Fayetteville area and along the Cape Fear River, expected to crest 20 feet above flood stage later this week.

No deaths had been reported in association with the storm in North Carolina by Sunday night. Irene has been blamed for seven deaths, five of them in Florida and two in Cuba.

A flash flood warning was issued for a 100-mile-by-50-mile swath of eastern North Carolina straddling Interstate 95 between Fayetteville and Rocky Mount. Gale-force winds were measured at the coast, and a tornado was reported by radar over Jacksonville on Sunday morning.

Scores of roads in the eastern part of the state had been closed because of flash flooding by 10 p.m. More than 2,100 homes and businesses were without power in the eastern half of the state Sunday evening.

Irene initially was expected to come ashore near the South Carolina line Sunday night, but then it picked up speed and tacked to the northeast. At 11 p.m., it was 85 miles southeast of Wilmington, moving northeast at 23 mph.

An evacuation order was issued for several beach towns near Wilmington, and people living in low-lying areas and mobile homes were encouraged to seek shelter. Many left homeless by Floyd were evacuated from temporary trailer villages to shelters.

``I'm getting to the point where I can't take it any more,'' said Herbert Person Jr., 48, who lost his Princeville home and was living in a government trailer park when he was evacuated to a shelter. ``I've worked hard all my life and paid taxes, and now I feel like I have nothing.''

The prospect of more flooding from Irene disheartened others still recovering from Floyd, which drenched eastern North Carolina with up to 20 inches of rain on Sept. 16.

``I can only imagine the frustration and anxiety I have seen on people's faces, having to move again into shelters and not knowing what they will find when they go back,'' said Moore. ``It's devastating.''

The American Red Cross reported at least 690 people were staying at 58 shelters Sunday night.

State officials prepared for Irene by activating 500 National Guardsmen, opening 39 Guard armories and putting 10 water rescue teams on standby in anticipating of flooding.

Because of Floyd's destructiveness _ at least 49 deaths and some 6,000 homes destroyed and billions in damages _ people were taking Irene very seriously, Moore said.

``If anything, people are going to err on the extreme side of caution,'' he said, adding that heavy rainfall could keep eastern North Carolina rivers above flood stage all week.

In South Carolina, dozens of church services were canceled, draw bridges were locked down and the Charleston International Airport was closed. Up to 6 inches of rain fell in parts of the state.

Across the state line, at Carolina Beach south of Wilmington, the boardwalk was deserted and the go-carts were lashed together at a nearby amusement park, closed for business.

Jack Tucker looked out over the empty Carolina Bingo hall, where he was helping out Sunday.

``I think even the flies are gone today,'' he said.