KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. — Hurricane Irene fell short of the doomsday predictions of record-breaking storm surges in North Carolina and Virginia. But a slow-crawling storm that spread out hundreds of miles was still hurling heavy rain and high winds at a wide swath of the East Coast a day after its first U.S. landfall, vexing official attempts to gauge the full damage toll on the region.
Irene's storm surge had triggered scattered flooding in coastal areas after coming ashore Saturday in North Carolina. It plunged at least 2.7 million residential and business power customers into darkness and roughed up one of the most densely populated areas of the country. Initial reports suggested light damages in many areas from Irene, a lower-strength hurricane when it struck the U.S.
But Irene inflicted scattered damage over such a broad area that the total damage — and costs involved — were not yet known. Authorities also said teams would be deploying later Sunday, particularly in more remote areas, to assess the extent and severity of those damages after Irene, which was blamed for eight deaths.
Virginia's Gov. Bob McDonnell had initially warned that Irene — one of those rare hurricanes that virtually takes aim at the entire East Coast — could be a "catastrophic" monster with record storm surges of up to 8 feet in some coastal areas of his state.
National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Montefusco said Norfolk came closest, with a storm surge of 7.55 feet. At least six to eight inches of rainfall fell over parts of Virginia.
Emergency crews around the region said they wanted to travel to asses damage from a confirmed tornado in Chincoteague, Va. There was at least one other suspected tornado that ripped away roofs in another Virginia community, Sandbridge. Authorities say Irene also blocked roads and caused other havoc.
In North Carolina, authorities reported storm surge flooding along some inland waterways, impassible roads and up to a foot of rain in some areas.
Infrastructure was a chief worry in the region, where the sprawl of major cities, suburban communities and beachfront properties had set many civil defense planners on edge as Irene approached the region. Ports, airports, nuclear power plants and more lay in the path of such a widespread storm, its storm bands spreading out about 500 miles at one point.
In Lusby, Md., Constellation Energy Nuclear Group said one of two nuclear reactors at Calvert Cliffs went off-line automatically because of Irene's winds. Constellation said the plant is safe and stable.
Mark Sullivan, a spokesman for Constellation, issued a statement early Sunday saying the Unit 1 reactor apparently went off-line automatically when a large piece of aluminum siding dislodged from a building and came into contact with a transformer late Saturday night. He added all employees were safe, though an "unusual event" was declared — the lowest of four emergency classifications by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Unit 2 reactor wasn't affected and kept up full operation, he said.
North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said Irene inflicted significant damage along her state's coast, adding that some areas were unreachable because of high water or downed power lines. Perdue planned an aerial tour Sunday of the hardest-hit counties after TV coverage showed downed trees, toppled utility poles and power lines and mangled awnings.
As with other states along the East Coast, there was no preliminary estimate yet of the dollar amount of damages in North Carolina.
Officials in North Carolina's Dare County said they were advised there was extensive flooding that needed to be checked out by teams. Elsewhere, authorities suggested Irene didn't create the kind of havoc that had been anticipated.
Bruce Shell, New Hanover County manager, said teams were already in the streets there Saturdaybut found no serious damage or anything else that was cause for alarm. Irene passed close to the county's coastline.
"We were prepared for a lot worse, but we got lucky on this one," Shell said.
He said many of the 70,000 homes which lost power Saturday were back online later that evening. Shell said there was apparently a wastewater spill at Wrightsville Beach, but it appeared to be minor.
Pinehurst dentist Harwell Palmer, 53, said the worst that happened to his home at Ocean Isle Beach was a few pieces of siding that he was able to replace after riding out the storm. He said there was some street flooding, and high waves pounded a pier, but it was still standing. Ocean Isle Beach missed a direct hit.
What did concern Palmer: heavy surf gobbled up beachfront shoreline.
"The main concern we will have going forward is the loss of beach," he said.
The question still facing the region was whether Irene's impact would match the problems left behind by such previous destructive storms as Floyd and Isabel.
In 1999, Floyd dropped at least 15 inches of rain on the eastern third of North Carolina. The flooding was the most damaging in the state's history, topping $3 billion in North Carolina alone after buildings were submerged, roads flooded, and livestock drowned. Four years later, Isabel brought hurricane conditions to eastern North Carolina and southeast Virginia, causing about $1 billion in damages.
One man who stuck it out in Ocean City, Md., though that resort appeared to hold up well against Irene.
Charlie Koetzle, 55, a resident of Ocean City for the last decade, stayed throughout the storm. He was up at 4 a.m. walking on the city's boardwalk and said by phone that he saw at least one sign that had been blown down but that the pier was still intact.
"The beach is still here, and there is lots of it," he said