A benchmark storm

Published 12:22 am Saturday, December 31, 2011

Debbie Cayton clips bar codes from books ruined when Hurricane Irene flooded Aurora’s library. (WDN File Photo/Jonathan Clayborne)

An unwelcome visit from Hurricane Irene — the “perfect Category 1” — is the No. 1 local story of 2011.

Though it wasn’t a major hurricane, Irene pummeled Beaufort County.

The storm unleashed destruction this area hadn’t seen for generations as its eyewall howled just east of the mouth of the Pamlico River and over eastern county locations Aug. 27.

One death was indirectly attributed to the storm in the county.

Irene destroyed 126 homes in Beaufort County, and damaged 362 homes so severely that, ideally, their occupants would have to be temporarily relocated to make way for repairs, county officials reported in early October.

As of Dec. 22, 195 homes still were at or above a 50-percent damage threshold and were considered uninhabitable, reported Jim Chrisman, Beaufort County’s assistant county manager and finance officer.

More than 3,600 county individuals and families registered for disaster assistance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Irene’s duration, angle of approach and close-by track over the Pamlico Sound made its effects more severe than if it had delivered a glancing blow. The huge hurricane’s western eyewall raked Beaufort County for hours during its passage.

“We were getting sustained winds well over 75 mph,” John Pack, Beaufort County’s emergency-management coordinator, said in a mid-September interview. “From the reports (weather observers) gave us, we’re talking in excess of 10 to 15 hours of that.”

Wind gusts of 103 mph, with routine gusts to 90 mph, were recorded in southeast Beaufort County, Pack said.

“A Cat. 2 storm coming by quickly will create less damage than what we saw with this Cat. 1,” he said.

County government received more than 18,000 tons of post-storm vegetative debris at dumping sites, said Chrisman, the assistant county manager.

County water service was disrupted for 36 hours to people south of the Pamlico River, he said.

Power outages nearly covered the entire county at one point, and some utility customers went without electricity for days as crews labored to remove downed trees and limbs from tangled lines.

Chrisman praised volunteer first responders and county staff for “the dedication I saw … across the county.”

Arthur Harris III and his family were the first Aurora residents to receive temporary housing — a park-model trailer — from the federal government. The family lost nearly everything they owned when the storm shoved 19 inches of water into their house, forcing Harris, his fiancée and children to wade to safety.

The Harris family was displaced while their home underwent repairs, but there was no trace of bitterness in Arthur Harris’ face or voice when he spoke of the disaster.

He said “it’s a blessing to be alive.”

Many people who shared Harris’ experience expressed the same sentiment.

Untold numbers of storm victims spoke about the kindness and community spirit that emerged in the wake of Irene.

The recovery continues.

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