© Chuck Liddy/The News & Observer
Maria Melnikova, 22, a seasonal worker from Russia who is staying in Buxton, protects her face from wind-blown sand.
Hurricane Irene triggered at least five deaths, swamped coastal families in waist-high water and left more than 500,000 homes without power - a bruising that will take the state days, if not weeks, to heal.

The cyclone killed three people in cars, including a 15-year-old girl whose father's vehicle collided with another under a blacked-out traffic light in Goldsboro. Four more children were ejected from that car and taken to Wayne County Memorial Hospital.

Floodwaters pushed onto the Outer Banks from the sounds, making parts of N.C. 12 impassable around Duck, Nags Head and Kitty Hawk, and prompting curfews for all but law enforcement.

The storm led to 100 swift-boat rescues in Craven County. An additional 26 people were rescued in Pamlico County, including two pregnant women and a pair of infants. Water rose so high there that the National Guard couldn't get through in pickup trucks, leaving some residents without aid until morning.

All day Saturday, Irene buffeted the state with winds up to 85 mph. Heavy winds collapsed a mall roof in Wayne County and peeled another off the 911 center. In Beaufort County, crews pulled a man from water that rose to his middle after the walls of his mobile home collapsed.

"We've taken a hard hit," Assistant County Manager Jack Veit said late Saturday. "The level of winds we've had, we've had them all day, and we're still in the midst. It's just a mess."

Irene was downgraded to a Category 1 storm by the time it hit North Carolina - a smidgeon of the Category 3 that roared through the Bahamas with 115-mph winds. Still, Irene remained a force that roiled the ocean, sounds and coastal rivers.

Gov. Bev Perdue cautioned residents to stay indoors.

"We have had reports of folks who are beginning to venture out," she said. "You endanger your safety and the safety of the first responders who might come and try to rescue you. ... Stay safe."

'Watching Trees Break'

Despite the mayhem, the storm turned many of the coast's residents into gawking spectators.

As the eye of Hurricane Irene neared the northern Outer Banks, Todd Riddick sat shirtless on his front porch with his 2-year-old son Christian between his legs.

"We're just sitting out here watching trees break," he said.

Not far away, Mike Scruggs, 22, stopped to take video of the Avalon Fishing Pier to send to friends. With his cellphone wrapped in a plastic bag, he held it up against the wind and used his other hand to shield his eyes.

"I didn't know the sand would be whipping like it is," he said, his face sandblasted with a 5 o'clock shadow of grit.

Johnny Reed, a local resident, tried to describe the feeling standing in the wind: "It's like sitting in the back of a pickup truck looking over the top as you drive 55 mph.

"The Wright Brothers came here for the wind," he continued. "They just didn't want the water to come along with it."

Days of Blackouts

Progress Energy reported 206,000 power outages statewide by Saturday night, down from a peak of 279,000 earlier in the day, with more than 12,500 in Wake County alone.

The energy company had a crew of 1,000 workers at hand, but by Saturday night, the weather was still too poor for them to begin. Spokesman Scott Sutton predicted several days of blackouts for any of the heavy-hit areas.

"No one is immune," he said. "The coast is definitely the worst, but Goldsboro is badly hit, and Fayetteville is badly hit. It's what happens when a well-timed gust finds an unfortunate tree."

A tornado struck in Tyrrell County near Columbia, destroying several houses, Emergency Management Director Wesley Hawkins said. Another twister was suspected in Beaufort County near Belhaven. Winds were too high to investigate the damage.

Residents Rescued

In most inland counties, water kept rising as Irene passed into Virginia.

Crews ferried more than 100 people to higher ground Saturday in Craven County, where 80 percent of residents had no electricity.

Dozens of families were trapped in Pamlico County near Oriental as floodwater pushed 2 feet higher than its crest during Hurricane Isabel in 2003. The National Guard was trying to free people using high-water vehicles, and swift-water rescue teams arrived from Goldsboro. Spotty communications and high wind hampered their efforts.

"Phones come and go, cellphones come and go, the Internet comes and goes," Pamlico Emergency Management Director David Spruill said. "It all depends on how you hold your head."

In Tyrrell County, the Scuppernong River poured into downtown Columbia by midafternoon.

"It's about to sever the town in half," Hawkins said.

Deaths on Roadways

In addition to the teen killed in the Goldsboro accident, a driver died when a vehicle hydroplaned in Pitt County, and another died when a vehicle was hit by a tree in Sampson County.

In Nash County, a man was killed by a tree limb while going to feed his animals outdoors. A man in Onslow County was hammering up plywood when he suffered a heart attack and died.

Also, two people died Saturday evening when a car ran off the road and struck a tree near Franklinton. It was unclear whether the wreck was related to bad weather from Irene.

But Irene spared many places that hurricanes typically victimize.

In Wilmington, the storm passed through early in the day, and power outages dipped from more than 60,000 to roughly 30,000. Warren Lee, New Hanover County's emergency management director, said a few houses had damage from tree limbs, and some spots had minor flooding, but the county's two shelters merged to one by early Saturday afternoon.

"I feel pretty blessed," he said. "It certainly had the potential to do some damage."