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Hurricane cleanup forces tourists to leave island

Ordered out by local officials, tourists left the  Outer Banks Thursday, clearing the way for crews to repair damage left by the stronger-than-expected Hurricane Alex.
Cars navigate through standing water in Avon, N.C., on the Outer Banks. Areas remain flooded two days after Hurricane Alex skirted the islands.Jeffrey A. Camarati / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

With their Outer Banks island disheveled by a hurricane’s glancing blow at the height of tourist season, officials here Thursday had two urgent messages for visitors: Get out now, but come back soon.

Thursday’s evacuation was ordered because state officials decided that keeping outsiders on Ocracoke Island would hinder efforts by its 800 full-time residents to clean up and recover from Hurricane Alex, which brought floods and power outages Tuesday.

Local officials said the island needs little more than a touchup, from removing downed trees to allowing some roads with standing water to dry out.

“We want to let the tourists know that Ocracoke Island is still here,” said Hyde County Sheriff L.B. Johnson. “We just want people to give us two or three days to make it safe. We want them to hurry back and come see us.”

One volunteer at the docks said many visitors who booked weeklong vacations months ago were in no hurry to get on the ferries.

“From what I’ve seen, people have wanted to enjoy their vacation as long as they could,” said Brock Womble, the superintendent of Hyde County Schools. “They all wanted to cooperate, but if they could, they’d be the last ones to leave.”

Exactly how many people were evacuated under the mandatory order was unclear; state officials estimated 6,000 to 8,000, while Hyde County put the number at 4,000 to 4,500.

Alex’s winds reached nearly 100 mph before the storm passed over the Outer Banks on its way out to sea.

No injuries were reported, but 22 utility poles on Ocracoke Island were toppled, many homes on Ocracoke and Hatteras islands sustained water damage and at least 300 cars were flooded.

In an incident Thursday that illustrated the need to clear visitors out, nine people escaped injury when a flooded car parked beneath a house caught fire and burned the dwelling down. Authorities believed an electrical short may have been at fault, Johnson said.