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Earl far more tame than feared

Hurricane Earl's center has passed east of Cape Hatteras as the storm's powerful gusts and driving rain still churn over the Outer Banks and are being felt in southeastern Virginia.

Residents and officials of North Carolina's barrier islands are beginning to assess how much damage the storm's wind and waves left. There's minor flooding in several coastal counties, and hundreds were without power. But the storm was far more tame than feared.

"We dodged the bullet," Gov. Bev Perdue said this morning. Perdue said there are initial reports of flooding in Ocracoke and Hatteras on the Outer Banks, "but a good Northeaster would have done the same thing."

By midmorning, Perdue said she hopes to get a more detailed picture of the damage in Dare County and Ocracoke, where an evacuation order is still in place. The Bonner Bridge to Hatteras Island is still closed as crews work to clear sand from N.C. 12 about a mile south of the bridge.

Most ferry routes are still closed. The Pamlico River ferry resumed operation at 9:45 a.m., while the Cherry Branch ferry is on an abbreviated schedule. The Southport ferry is on a normal schedule.

The governor emphasized most of the state's beaches are open and ready for tourists to return. Both bridges in Carteret County are open, she said. Currituck will open at 11 a.m.

"We are open and hoping for a terrific Labor Day weekend," she said.

Sustained winds at the core of Earl were at 105 mph at 8 a.m. as the storm, centered about 130 miles east-northeast of Cape Hatteras, moving to the north-northeast at 18 mph. National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Collins said Earl had produced little storm surge. Earl had weakened all day Thursday, winding down from a Category 4 storm with winds of 140 mph to Category 2.

Ocracoke Island fishing boat captain Reid Robinson planned ahead and booked a hotel room in anticipation of Earl's wind and rain. From his room at the Anchorage Inn, he could keep an eye on his boat, the Devereux, which is docked in Silver Lake harbor.

But it wasn't the hurricane that really concerned Robinson.

"Awwww, I've been through a lot of storms," he said.

Rather, unlike his own home, the hotel has a generator. Power has been out on the island since about 4 a.m. By 10 a.m., most of the water had receded along village roads. Some remained, but the roads were passable, Robinson said.

In Nags Head, with the eye the closest it was expected to get to the North Carolina coast, rain lashed against window panes and the wind kicked up. Tops of small trees were bending in the howling gusts and beach grass was whipping back and forth on dunes leading to the ocean.

The emergency management chief in Dare County said that high tide and the storm combined to wash over a portion of N.C. 12 near Rodanthe. Emergency Management Director Sandy Sanderson said the road was closed, but that the overwash was expected and nobody was out driving in the storm, anyway.

In Buxton, a two-story Comfort Inn had become a makeshift hurricane hostel for those who want to stay close to their homes but know they need better shelter.

Billy Parker, 55, chose to stay so he could keep an eye on his treasured property, but wasn't taking any chances with his family. He sent his wife, mother-in-law and two daughters to Elizabeth City - two and a half hours away on the mainland.

"I don't want them here," Parker said. "I'd fear for their lives."

Earl didn't cause many problems to the south on the Crystal Coast. Carteret County Emergency Management officials reported only minor flooding along N.C. 12 near Cedar Island.

Flooding in that area is fairly regular during storms like Earl, said emergency services spokeswoman Kat Broome. "There doesn't seem to be any major damage," she said.

Federal, state and local authorities were patrolling the North Carolina coast to check for damage as daylight came. The Coast Guard planned to fly over the exposed barrier islands and was prepared for search-and-rescue helicopter flights.

Earl caused so few issues on the Crystal Coast that officials decided to reopen the bridge between Atlantic Beach and Morehead City at 5:30 a.m. Although people had been allowed to drive off Atlantic Beach, the bridge was closed to beachbound traffic at 5 p.m. Thursday as part of a mandatory evacuation of the island.

Minor damage was reported to the Sheraton Hotel's pier at Atlantic Beach, which was closed to foot traffic at 2 p.m. Thursday. But the pier is still standing, with one buckled piling as evidence of Earl's visit. Hotel manager Tim Peters said the piling should be fixed and the pier reopened within the week.

With only minor puddles and no limbs in the roadways, the early risers started the process of returning their lives to normal.

Randy Hingson, owner of White Swan Bar-B-Q & Fried Chicken, showed up not long after 6 a.m. to start breakfast and remove the hurricane shutters from the front of his restaurant. He closed at 2 p.m. Thursday in advance of high winds that never came.

But he was still tired.

"I slept with one eye open last night," he said.

To the north, while more than 30,000 residents and visitors were ordered to leave the Outer Banks, more hardy residents gassed up their generators and hunkered at home for the night behind their boarded-up windows.

"It's kind of nerve-racking, but I've been through this before," said 65-year-old Herma De Gier, who has lived in the village of Avon since 1984. De Gier said she would ride out the storm at a neighbor's house but wanted to be close enough to her own property so she can quickly deal with any damage.

During its march up the Atlantic, Earl could snarl travelers' Labor Day weekend plans with several flights already canceled. Forecasters said that a kink in the jetstream over the eastern U.S. should push the storm away from the coast, guiding it like a marble in a groove. Earl is expected to move north-northeast for much of today, staying away from New Jersey and the other mid-Atlantic states, but also passing very close to Long Island, Cape Cod and Nantucket, which could get gusts up to 100 mph.

The most likely place Earl will make landfall is on Saturday in western Nova Scotia, Canada, where it could still be a hurricane, said hurricane center deputy director Ed Rappaport.

Governors in Massachusetts and Rhode Island declared states of emergency, joining North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick urged people living in low-lying areas prone to flooding to consider leaving their homes by Friday afternoon, although no officials evacuations had been announced outside of North Carolina. Officials on Nantucket Island, Mass., planned to set up a shelter at a high school on Friday.

"We're asking everyone: Don't panic," Patrick said. "We have prepared well, we are coordinated well, and I'm confident that we've done everything that we can."

Much of New England should expect strong, gusty winds much like a nor'easter, along with fallen trees and downed power lines, forecasters said.

"This is the strongest hurricane to threaten the Northeast and New England since Hurricane Bob in 1991," said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center.

In New York City, officials were on alert but said they expected to see only side effects of the storm - mostly rain and high winds, with possible soil erosion on the beaches and flooding along the oceanside coasts of Brooklyn and Queens.

"It's going to stay out in the open water, but we're going to have some effects here," said Joseph Bruno, commissioner of the city's Office of Emergency Management.

The National Hurricane Center said Earl will keep chugging to the northeast, eventually striking western Nova Scotia, Canada, where it could still be a hurricane.

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