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Monday, October 18, 1999 Published at 03:35 GMT 04:35 UK

World: Americas

Irene deluge hits North Carolina

Strong winds, but rain is the real threat

Hurricane Irene drenched south-eastern North Carolina with nearly six inches of rain on Sunday as it continued its march up America's east coast.

The BBC's Kurt Barling: "A trail of devastation and widespread flooding"
Torrential rains ahead of its centre swamped dozens of roads in a state still saturated by record floodwaters from last month's Hurricane Floyd.

Up to 5.5 inches (14 cms) have fallen in eastern parts of the state, with several more inches possible, said the US National Weather Service.

[ image: The hurricane's centre is just off the east coast]
The hurricane's centre is just off the east coast
A tornado spawned by the hurricane touched down near Elizabeth City in the state's north-east around 1900 local time on Sunday (2300 GMT). Authorities said it had brought down power lines and trees, but they reported no injuries.

Irene was originally expected to come ashore near the state line with South Carolina, but then it picked up speed and tacked to the north-east, a path that may guide it along the coast.

At 2000 local time on Sunday, it was 65 miles (100 km) south of Wilmington, moving north-east at 18 mph (29 kph).

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said there was a chance Irene and its 75 mph (120 kph) winds might skirt the North Carolina coast without coming ashore. "It's too close to call," said one meteorologist.

"Our current forecast track takes it very close to Cape Hatteras, but it's likely it will remain offshore," said another.

[ image: Dozens of roads were flooded]
Dozens of roads were flooded
Both agreed however that the greatest concern was rain, not wind - North Carolina's eastern coastal plain is especially vulnerable to more flooding.

An evacuation order was issued for several beach towns near Wilmington, and people living in low-lying areas and mobile homes were encouraged to seek shelter. Many left homeless by Floyd were evacuated from temporary trailer villages to shelters.

Local news media reported that one person was killed in a weather-related car accident.

State of emergency

Almost 50 people were killed and thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed when Floyd made landfall in North Carolina. It was the state's worst natural disaster.

Tens of thousands of people were forced out of their homes.

In preparation for the arrival of Irene, Governor Jim Hunt has declared a state of emergency, and officials are warning that a crisis on a similar scale could be approaching.

Irene has already left much of south Florida under water and North Carolina's emergency management agency says it is ready to shift focus from recovery to preparations for another crisis.

Coastal areas of North Carolina are under a mandatory evacuation, while parts of South Carolina are under a voluntary evacuation order.

Hurricane warnings are in effect from north of Edisto Beach, South Carolina, to Cape Hatteras on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Tropical storm warnings extend north from Cape Hatteras to the North Carolina-Virginia border.

Path of destruction

At least 14 people have so far been killed by Hurricane Irene, five of them electrocuted by fallen power lines in Florida.

In Fort Lauderdale, a mother, her twin sons and a teenage friend died when they stepped into puddles electrified by power cables. Minutes later another teenager was electrocuted in similar circumstances 10 miles away.

In Coral Springs, Florida, a man's body was found floating near a vehicle in a canal.

Four people were reported dead in Cuba, of whom two were electrocuted and the other two drowned in fields of sugar cane.

Another four deaths were blamed on Hurricane Irene in the Bahamas.

Hurricane Irene has caused worse floods than much stronger hurricanes of the recent past, such as Hurricane Andrew whose 150mph (240kmh) winds caused more than $25bn damage to Miami's southern suburbs.

Hurricane Irene's strongest winds, which also hit Miami, reached speeds of 85mph (135kmh).

Early on Sunday, Irene continued to maintain sustained winds of 75 mph (120kmh), just above the threshold for a hurricane.

Metereologists warn that it could yet gain strength.

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