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Carolina Coast Dodges Hurricane

August 31, 1999

NAGS HEAD, N.C. (AP) _ Relieved coastal residents watched Hurricane Dennis churn out to sea, marveling at the power of the winds it generated and the sparse property damage it left behind.

``All in all, we did dodge a bullet,″ Danny Couch, owner of a shopping center in Buxton, said Monday evening. ``It was a pretty impressive system.″

A hurricane warning along the North Carolina coast was downgraded to a tropical storm warning Monday night, but forecasters said it was too early to write off Dennis completely.

Jerry Jarrell of the National Hurricane Center in Miami said forecasters believed Dennis would stall at sea today for three or four days.

``Unfortunately, one of our better models is showing that it comes back into the coast, not far from where it is right now, close to Norfolk or in that general vicinity,″ he warned.

At 2 a.m. today, Dennis was 150 miles east of Cape Hatteras, moving toward the east-northeast at 9 mph with maximum winds up to 80 mph. A gale warning was in effect from Chincoteague, Va., to Cape Henlopen, Del.

For a time Monday, it seemed yet another hurricane might cross Cape Fear, directly south of Wilmington, just like Bertha and Fran in 1996 and Bonnie in 1998. Fran killed 25 people and caused up to $6 billion in damage.

But just as Dennis approached the Outer Banks, it began edging away.

The storm’s eye stayed 60 miles from shore, but it still pummeled the coast with high winds and up to 8 inches of rain. The effects of the storm were felt as far north in the beach towns of Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk.

Two people died Monday in a head-on car collision in Onslow County that was blamed on poor visibility from wind and rain. A surfer’s death at St. Augustine Beach, Fla., on Saturday was attributed to heavy surf from Dennis.

In Dare County, a Coast Guard helicopter rescued four men from a small boat that had blown into a marsh after its engine failed in the 30-foot surf.

On Hatteras Island, the ocean washed out Route 12, the only highway along the narrow barrier island. A stretch of the road was shut down near Kitty Hawk, too.

Flooding was a problem farther south. The community of Cedar Island in Carteret County was cut off by water, and Ocracoke Island was drenched by rain and waves, said Hyde County Manager Jeff Credle.

``The whole village was covered with water ... six feet above sea level,″ Credle said.

Winds howled up to 100 mph earlier in the day but calmed to below 60 mph by late afternoon, Credle said. Damage estimates can’t be made until water recedes on the island, which is reachable only by ferries.

Cindy Babbitt rode out the storm in her Hatteras Landing Marina, just across the inlet from Ocracoke. ``We’re faring OK,″ she said. ``I tried to look outside, but the rain is so sideways I can’t see.″

John Utz, of Nags Head, said a weather gauge on his house measured wind speeds up to 50 mph. ``We were sitting in my house watching shingles peel off the house across the street,″ he said.

A rental cottage here was gutted by a fire that officials believe was caused by winds shorting out power lines. Earlier in the day, a firefighter in Kill Devil Hills was shocked when a power line arced toward him, but he recovered and was back on duty.

Storm damage was light. New Hanover’s losses totaled $217,000, while in Brunswick County, the collapse of a beachfront house at Ocean Isle Beach was the worst property damage reported, said Cecil Logan of the county emergency management office.

Utility companies said about 67,000 customers in coastal and inland counties lost power. The outages stretched as far inland as the Raleigh in central North Carolina.

Life resumed a more normal pace along the northern and southern beaches by Monday evening. Many restaurants were open, and a few hardy souls ventured onto the wind-whipped beaches.

``I’ve seen a bunch of bad weather in this area, but we’re real happy with how things turned out this time,″ said Bob Sheppard of Wrightsville Beach.

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