NAGS HEAD, N.C. (AP) - Hurricane Irene unleashed its winds and rain Saturday on eastern North Carolina, raking coastal villages and reaching well inland to topple trees, flood towns and leave hundreds of thousands without power.
The unrelenting winds and torrential downpours started long before landfall around 7:30 a.m. near Cape Lookout and kept coming throughout the day. Few places in the eastern third of the state were spared. Some of the worst flooding happened along the state's sounds, where water from the ocean was forced into the narrow inlets, then spilled into neighborhoods.
One man was killed in Nash County after a tree limb fell on him outside his home Saturday morning as some outer bands from the storm brought near hurricane-force gusts more than 100 miles island. A child died when the vehicle she was in wrecked at an intersection in Goldsboro where Irene had knocked out power, authorities said.
Rescue crews continued to search Saturday for a man who jumped or fell into the Cape Fear River as the storm raged the night before, but did not find him.
Two other deaths were reported as the storm swept over the state, but authorities weren't sure if the storm was to blame. A man had a heart attack while boarding up his windows in Onslow County and a man was killed when his car ran off the road and hit a tree in Pit County.
More than 615,000 people were left without electricity Saturday evening, and utility crews warned it could be days before they were able to get everyone's power back on. Officials said Irene lingered so long that there wasn't time in daylight to do much damage assessment.
But Gov. Beverly Perdue said initial reports made it obvious the "state and our people have sustained some really significant damage."
"It's been a hard day for all of us in North Carolina," she said.
The National Hurricane Center said Irene was a Category 1, the weakest of the five categories of hurricanes. But across the state, emergency planners said this wasn't like any Category 1 they have seen before. It had strong winds - a 115 mph gust was recorded by employees at the Cedar Island ferry terminal near where Irene made landfall and many areas got up to 7 inches of rain as Irene churned across the state for 12 hours, exiting from the northern Outer Banks, where she gave one final blow by flooding much of Manteo with up to 3 feet water.
The water rushed into Manteo from the sounds, which caused most of Saturday's flooding because of the storm's track just inland.
The National Guard had to be called to rescue several people from the roofs or second stories of their homes in eastern Pamlico County after the Pamlico Sound came rushing into the eastern part of the county, County Manager Tim Buck said.
"I had some residents tell me it flooded faster and much worse than in Hurricane Isabel," Buck said, referring to the September 2003 storm that had been the benchmark for flooding in the area.
In New Bern, the Neuse River poured into the city of 30,000, pushed over its banks by a rush of water from the Pamlico Sound.
Rescuers braved wind gusts of 50 mph to save several dozen people as up to 4 feet of water rapidly rushed in, Craven County Emergency Management Director Stanley Kite said.
In Morehead City, a storm surge of up to 6 feet pushed into neighborhoods.
A catamaran sailboat and a wooden bed frame were in one yard, and Mike Weeks said some of his neighbors' sheds and outbuildings were gone.
"All of a sudden I can't remember what was here before. There are some buildings missing," said Weeks, who surveyed the damage Saturday morning with his 3-year-old granddaughter.
There were no deaths or injuries from the flooding.
Authorities said no one was hurt when winds took out parts of roofs at the Berkeley Mall in Goldsboro and the Jones County Civic Center, where 70 residents had sought shelter.
Two piers along North Carolina's southern Outer Banks were damaged. Emerald Isle town manager Frank Rush said the end of Bogue Inlet Pier collapsed. Part of the pier behind the Sheraton Hotel in Atlantic Beach collapsed.
The flooding could create environmental problems as well. The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources said power outages and floodwaters led at least a half-dozen towns or cities to report problems with their water or sewer systems, including Williamston, where officials said some wastewater is bypassing the local plant for the Roanoke River.
Along the Outer banks, the worst damage happened in the northern island. Irene's exit combined with high tide to flood parts of Kitty Hawk and Roanoke Island. Officials had to go door-to-door in the hardest hit areas to move some people to safer ground using Army vehicles, said Dare County Emergency Management spokeswoman Cathryn Bryan.
The more fragile southern Outer Banks fared better. Authorities reported seawater washing over state Highway 12, the only road link to the mainland, but they said the road had not been washed out like in previous storms.
Kathy Jarvis rode out Irene in Buxton, near the southern end of Hatteras Island. She said Irene's path over the mainland meant a southern wind that kept the ocean and the sound away from the Outer Banks.
"It really wasn't that bad," she said Saturday night. "You always prepare for the worst and that didn't happen. Yes we had some rain and high winds, but it was the direction of the wind that saved us."
Even with the flooding, many places on the Outer Banks managed to keep power, which didn't happen in a lot of places.
Power was out for 90 percent of Tideland Electric Membership Corp.'s 22,800 customers in five coastal counties and Ocracoke Island. The utility blamed a downed transmission line and asked customers to stop calling to see when the power would come back.
"Power restoration activities will take days, not hours," a company news release said.
Some of Irene's outer bands were nearly as ferocious as the storm's core.
A 64 mph wind gust was reported in Greenville. Damage was so extensive in Rocky Mount, some 90 miles from the storm's center, that the mayor declared a state of emergency, and trees and power lines were toppled west of Raleigh. Wind gusts of up to 40 mph were reported in Greensboro.
Eighteen eastern counties were under some form of mandatory or voluntary evacuation order or request for visitors, residents or both, according to the state Division of Emergency Management. Officials said Saturday that at one point 81 shelters were open in 29 counties and housing more than 7,500 evacuees.