NAGS HEAD, N.C. — Even if Hurricane Irene had missed North Carolina completely, the damage it caused farther north would have still imperiled the last hurrah of summer on North Carolina beaches — and the millions of dollars at stake.
The storm that made landfall at Cape Lookout on Saturday and then steamed up the East Coast left behind hundreds of thousands without power and damage that's still being tallied, much of it in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern states that supply a huge percentage of the tourists who come to the Outer Banks and other North Carolina beaches each summer.
"If your house was damaged, you might not want to go on vacation right away to the Outer Banks," said James Kleckley, director of the Bureau of Business Research at East Carolina University and an expert on the region's tourism-driven economy. "That's going to have an impact."
And as Gov. Beverly Perdue and other officials offered assurance that the state's beaches are ready for Labor Day, there were signs along the coast that the hangover from Irene will persist for at least the next few days, ranging from mostly empty beaches to an advisory telling people on the Outer Banks to boil drinking water.
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The heart of North Carolina's coastal tourism economy is the Outer Banks, which stretch from the Virginia state line to tiny Ocracoke Island. And the moneymaking pulse of the region is Dare County, which includes the towns of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head, where restaurants and shops line N.C. 158 from end to end and rental houses cluster along the beaches.
These beaches are North Carolina's top tourism destination, worth about $834 million in business last year. On Monday there were worrying signs that Irene may have hobbled hopes for a lucrative Labor Day.Story: N.Y. airports begin relieving backlog of stranded fliers
At the Comfort Inn on the beach at Nags Head, the hotel's 105 rooms were booked solid for the week before the storm, said front desk manager Kelly Smith. But over the last 24 hours they received 150 cancellations for the coming week. She estimated that the hotel will only be about two-thirds full over the traditionally busy Labor Day weekend, when rooms go for $160 a night.
Many of the cancellations are coming from northern states affected by Irene, she said.
"They're saying they're canceling because their power is off and don't know when it's coming on," Smith said. "Or they're saying their power is off, they had some damage and they don't know if they can afford the vacation anymore."
Rental properties outnumber hotel rooms more than 2-to-1 in Dare County, and some owners in that sector were having the same woes as the Comfort Inn.
Mike Johnson received cancellations on two of his three rental properties, both from families in New Jersey who had planned to spend Labor Day on the beach.
"I lost a lot of business," he said. "We got very little damage compared to other homes. One family told me they were worried that things wouldn't be open, and asked about the condition of the beaches. I told them outside of Hatteras, everything really was open for business. The beaches are fine. But they were worried."Story: Passenger rights when flights are canceled
The beach communities faced another problem Monday when the water utility that serves the length of the Outer Banks issued a boil-water advisory, which Dare County spokeswoman Kathryn Bryan said was a precautionary measure prompted by extensive flooding.
Lee Nettles, managing director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, said he hadn't known about the water advisory before emphasizing that the area reopening to tourists had 70 percent of the available rooms in the Outer Banks.
"It obviously isn't ideal. It isn't going to help us," Nettles said. "But I'm hopeful still that the word will get out that a lot of our businesses are open."
In coastal areas south of the Outer Banks, where tourism is also an economic mainstay, workers scrambled Monday to get hotels, restaurants and beaches ready for Labor Day.
In Emerald Isle, workers hauled off more than 150 barnacle-encrusted car tires that washed up from an offshore artificial reef during the storm. In nearby Atlantic Beach, the Sheraton hotel was closed to visitors as about 75 workers from a disaster restoration company labored to get it ready for the weekend rush.
Nearby at the Crab Shack restaurant, where the force of waves from Irene's sound-side surge slammed into the low-lying building, the plywood subfloor bowed up several inches off its joists. A black line marked the wall a foot high where water flooded the building.
Brothers Eric and Craig Guthrie tore out the carpet while they waited for an insurance adjuster to arrive. They said it was the sixth time the restaurant has flooded since their father opened the place 35 years ago.
"There was Bertha, Fran, the two after," said Craig Guthrie, struggling to remember all the storms that had flooded the business. "Then there was Ophelia. That one tore off the whole back dining room."
He predicted they would miss Labor Day, but they still planned to rebuild.
'Open for tourism'
Reassuring tourists that the state's beaches are ready has been a priority of state and local officials even before the extent of the damage is fully known. Perdue, in her tours of areas affected by the storm, has stressed that the cleanup won't affect vacationers.
"We feel like the folks around the country understand our beaches are open and North Carolina is open for tourism," Perdue said in Rocky Mount on Monday.
But many of the beaches along the Outer Banks were practically deserted Monday. Hatteras Island remained accessible only by ferry because of damage to N.C. 12, the only road connecting it to the mainland.After Irene, cruise lines assess damage to private islands
Mandy Evans, 24, was one of the few people walking along the beach in Nags Head, looking for seashells. Like many Outer Banks residents, Evans depends on tourism: She works in a gift shop along N.C. 158, and was troubled to see so few people out on the sand.
"If the tourists don't come, we're in trouble," she said. "We have to get the word out that the beaches are fine. Come down."
The focus on making sure tourists feel comfortable may seem odd to anyone unfamiliar with the lopsided economy of the Outer Banks. Research by Kleckley shows that fully 50 percent of all jobs in the region are concentrated in three sectors: hotels and food service; retail, from grocery stores to souvenir stands; and real estate rentals and leases. By contrast, those three sectors account for just over 20 percent of overall jobs in North Carolina.
"The tourists are the lifeblood of most things there," he said. "They're really geared toward bringing that non-resident to the area and taking care of them."
Associated Press writers Michael Biesecker in Atlantic Beach, Gary D. Robertson in Rocky Mount and Emery Dalesio in Raleigh contributed to this story. Breen reported from Kill Devil Hills.
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