NAGS HEAD, N.C. (AP) — A tourist speeding to the beaches at Nags Head for Labor Day weekend could be forgiven for not knowing a hurricane flooded the North Carolina coast about a week ago. Blue skies are back. Seafood and ice cream shacks were open Friday.
But a real disaster has befallen local workers who serve tourists and keep the towns running. A clerk at a Roanoke Island hardware store has to muck out floodwater at her parents' home in between waiting on customers. A local car mechanic says he cried while describing to his bank tellers the flooding that wrecked Stumpy Point, and how his evacuated wife broke her collarbone. A woman along a rural highway thanks God that she's alive after a hurricane-induced tornado smashed her trailer to splinters.
"It was a blue collar storm, that's what I'm calling it," said Jason McNair, 37, a bread truck driver who was waiting to steer onto an emergency ferry bound for Hatteras, which lost its only road to the mainland when the hurricane breached Highway 12.
Hurricane Irene has been blamed for at least 46 deaths in 13 states and knocked out power to millions. Six of the storm deaths were in North Carolina.
President Barack Obama signed a disaster declaration for coastal North Carolina, covering the tourist destinations as well as the less-affluent nearby counties. Gov. Beverly Perdue said Friday that preliminary losses in the state from Irene now top $400 million.
On the North Carolina coast, the hurricane inflicted some of its worst damage by pushing the water from the sounds up against the western edge the barrier islands and along the mainland, often in working-class neighborhoods. It exacerbated a jarring difference in lifestyles. While restaurants in Nags Head this week served fresh flounder and broiled crab cakes to visitors, hamlets in nearby Tyrrell County — one of North Carolina's poorest communities — still had no electricity by late Thursday. Relief workers distributed boxed charity meals and National Guard soldiers delivered ice by truck.
Compare that to the upscale tourist destination Nags Head, where visitors spend thousands of dollars to book a home for a month. Sharon Taylor, 48, of Appomattox, Va., arrived with eight relatives on Monday. Other than starting their vacation a day late and finding a pile of sand on the steps leading from their oceanside rental to the beach, they've had a good time.
"Other than it being kind of inconvenient — the sand — I haven't noticed any problems," she said.
Although the storm did cause damage in some tourist areas and well-to-do neighborhoods, people there typically have insurance and more cash on hand to cope with a crisis.
Back on the mainland, the hurricane flooded Stumpy Point, a tiny hamlet of less than 100 homes inhabited by fishermen and county employees in Dare County. Long-timers were shocked when flood waters got so deep they had to flee by boat. As a nearby emergency ferry shuttled food and relief workers to the barrier islands, the locals picked up the pieces for themselves.
Jeff Parker, an auto mechanic, spent Thursday sorting through the remains of his home, a steel building that contains a mechanic's garage and an apartment where he and his wife have lived. For years, he dreamed of building a new house on his lot. Not anymore.
"We're going to get through this, but I'm going to probably move," he said. "My wife isn't coming back here. I can't put her through that anymore."
He spent his morning phoning insurance agents, cleaning debris and taking an occasional smoke break. He figured he could sell some of the wet engines and gear in his garage for scrap metal. Rising water had floated the furniture around his living room. Drawers of socks and underwear stained dull grey and brown by silt were drying in his yard.
"You don't know what to do," he said. "You walk past something and say, 'Well, I'm not gonna keep that. I'm just going to throw that out.' You know what I mean? And then you say, 'Oh no, I gotta keep that'. And it's got mud on it. I gotta wash it. Now, the mud's already dried, it takes forever."
He said he cried Tuesday while discussing the storm and his wife's health troubles at the bank.
"All of them were crying," he said. "They had me crying. The people behind us, they didn't do nothing for 20 minutes."
Conditions were also rough farther west in Tyrrell County, more than 40 miles from Nags Heads. Flood waters from the Albermarle Sound and the Alligator and Scuppernong rivers inundated low-lying neighborhoods. The county is one of the state's poorest, with per-capita income at less than $17,000, or a third lower than the statewide average.
County worker Charlene Pate, 43, was answering questions outside a disaster center where residents could file claims for emergency assistance and get food, water and ice. Her father arranged a delivery of food from a faith-based organization when the supply was initially tight.
"It just seems to me that we're forgotten," she said. "We're little bitty, we don't make a lot of money."
She gestured toward the highway leading to the shore.
"That's tourists down there," she said. "That's where the dollar really matters."
Hamlets throughout Tyrrell have been among the last to get electricity restored. Brian Campbell, 21, was standing outside his grandparent's home in Kilkenny when a National Guard truck convoy rumbled through, delivering ice. He had not seen a utility crew on his street since it lost power Aug. 26.
"The way I figure, they're going to the beach to get ready for Labor Day," he said.
As tourists move down the highway for the beach, many will pass by the trailer of Peggy McClese, 55, whose home was struck by a tornado spawned at the leading edge of the hurricane. It looks as if a giant spun her trailer a few times, then stepped on the roof, crunching in its walls. She heard the storm approaching Friday, saw her bedroom window shaking, got out of bed, then fell down.
"That's when everything started blowing, flying around, falling down," she said.
Next thing she knew, she was on the ground and couldn't move because her bedframe was pinned on top of her. McClese said she prayed to God for help and found herself freed, suffering two broken toes and a bruised face.
She expected to spend Labor Day weekend sorting through the wreckage and finding a new home.
Associated Press reporter Emery P. Dalesio contributed to this report.