Atlantic coast communities grapple with Irene aftermath

By Jim Brumm

WILMINGTON, North Carolina (Reuters) - Communities along the Atlantic coast and inland grappled on Monday with the lingering effects of Hurricane Irene as flooding, storm debris and road closures dimmed Labor Day holiday weekend tourism prospects for some.

Mandatory evacuations remained in effect for parts of eastern North Carolina, where 210,000 remained without power and dozens of roads were closed or impassable due to downed trees and power lines, the governor's office said.

Flooding posed a threat to inland counties that had received up to 15 inches of rain, state officials said. Homes and other structures along the Northeast Cape Fear and Tar rivers were at risk.

"Flooding remains a serious concern for a number of areas down east," said Governor Beverly Perdue, who toured storm-damaged areas and requested a federal disaster declaration for seven coastal counties.

Despite the damage, most of North Carolina's 300 miles of coast will be open for business as the Labor Day weekend approaches, officials said.

Northern portions of the state's Outer Banks began to reopen to tourists on Monday, but southern parts of the barrier islands remained closed after Irene severed some beach communities' only road access to the mainland.

North Carolina Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Abbott said engineers were looking at whether they could make a temporary fix to a highway breached by seawater and broken at several points, cutting off access south of Rodanthe.

State ferries that serve those areas were limited to critical personnel.

"They're trying to figure out the best, safest way to get that road open," Abbott said.

John Bone, president of the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce in Kill Devil Hills, said tourists were already returning after the upper Outer Banks escaped major damage.

"We were very fortunate in many respects," he said. "It could have been a lot worse."


Officials in neighboring Virginia also had a positive outlook about the upcoming holiday weekend.

"We have had some minor beach erosion ... but the beaches actually opened yesterday and the water quality is back to where it was," Virginia Beach Fire Department spokesman Tim Riley said. "All the hotels are open, and we're planning for a big Labor Day."

The state had its worst storm damage in Richmond and other inland locales rather than on the coast. About 550,000 customers remained without power mid-Monday, down from 1.1 million customers who lost power in the second-largest outage in Virginia history, Governor Bob McDonnell told reporters.

He said he saw a lot of downed trees, flooded roads and some damaged piers during an aerial tour over Virginia Beach, where winds peaked at 69 mph, and surrounding areas.

Moderate flooding was expected in Virginia on Tuesday when the Nansemond and Blackwater rivers crest, officials said.

As severe flooding wreaked havoc across Vermont and New Jersey, Atlantic City casinos along the shore were allowed to reopen at noon on Monday.

Caesars Entertainment Corp, which includes the hotels and casinos of Caesars, Harrah's, Bally's and Showboat in Atlantic City, was still calculating how much the storm cost in lost revenue, spokeswoman Jennifer Weissman said.

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