Outer Banks watches Sandy off the coast

NAGS HEAD - Convenience stores, breakfast restaurants and gas stations on North Carolina's Outer Banks opened for business as usual Sunday as Hurricane Sandy chugged off the coast with high winds and tides that threatened the barrier islands for days.

Sandy was a Category 1 storm packing 75 mph winds about 250 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, and moving northeast at 14 mph as of 11 a.m. Sunday, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

There was scattered flooding on the barrier island beach road in Nags Head early Sunday, with the worst of the storm expected to be felt later in the day and on Monday. Rain fell but gusty winds were barely half the 75 mph sustained winds reported near the center of Sandy, still hundreds of miles away. On the oceanfront, the state Department of Transportation reported sustained winds of 50 mph.

Winds shifting from the east to the northwest later Sunday could cause soundfront flooding of 3 to 5 feet.

Officials in the three counties along the Outer Banks did not call for evacuations, but urged motorists to stay off the roads during the storm, especially beach roads known to flood or to be covered by sand. Localized power outages were expected throughout the islands. Power companies reported scattered power outages.

State emergency management officials had not received reports of injuries or serious problems by midday Sunday, said Julia Jarema, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.

"We're going to have to wait until the storm goes through to figure out what type of damage we have," she said.

The major concerns were rising tides and pounding waves on the ocean side, where many beachfront properties were vulnerable, and also on the backside of the islands where authorities feared the hurricane's winds could drive up water from the normally tranquil sound. Some areas of southern Hatteras Island were swamped by several inches of water and sand Sunday. Hurricane Irene last year caused 6 feet or more of water rise from Pamlico Sound into homes and slice the only road to the mainland from the low-lying, 70-mile-long island.

That road, N.C. Highway 12, was closed from south of the Oregon Inlet bridge to the Hatteras Island town of Rodanthe after it was inundated by salt water and sand, a common storm occurrence in that area. High tide coming just before nightfall was likely to push more water and sand onto the road, so the state DOT said it didn't know when the road might reopen.

On Portsmouth Island, a former fishing village that is now uninhabited and accessible only by private ferry, the Coast Guard was unable to deliver supplies to a group of about 20 people forced to wait out the storm Saturday after private ferries quit plying the storm-tossed waters to the mainland, Jarema said.

"We know that they're out there," Jarema said Sunday. "We know that they've got some food and some provisions to get them through the storm. We'll make an effort to get out there and get to them as soon as it's safe to do so, but we just can't do that right now."

Coastal ferry operations were suspended late Saturday, but Sandy's march northward meant the Southport-Fort Fisher route near the South Carolina border was able to resume normal operations Sunday.

DeWitt Quinn, 63, from the mainland town of Badin, was in the Outer Banks for his annual fishing trip when Sandy promised to disrupted his plans. He spent all day Saturday fishing from shore and a boat as the storm built up. A former member of the Coast Guard, Quinn said he was planning to spend Sunday indoors with his buddies cleaning and preparing a two-foot-long fish caught Saturday.

"We've got cards. We've got computers. We've got food. We're going to cook our brains out and eat very well," Quinn said.

Terri and Troy Meester of Monument, Colo., had come to North Carolina on Thursday to visit their 24-year-old daughter Tiffany, who had moved to Greenville earlier this year. Their tourism was cut short when the Wright Brothers National Memorial marking the spot in Kill Devil Hills of man's first powered flight closed early. They decided to stay in a beachfront hotel to experience hurricane-like conditions for the first time.

"We're crazy. We had a choice. We didn't have to come here, but we decided to stay," Terri Meester said. "We decided to do an adventure."

For local residents though, Sunday promised little more than another day indoors.

"It makes me have to do all my house work and all the stuff I should have done," Manteo resident Jane Kauffman said.

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