BUXTON, N.C. (AP) – A stronger-than-expected Hurricane Alex brushed North Carolina’s coast Tuesday, cutting power to thousands and flooding Hatteras Island’s only link to the mainland but sparing the area a direct hit.

The storm grew to hurricane strength, 74 mph, early in the day and by midday the sustained wind around its eye had revved up to nearly 100 mph, with higher gusts, the National Hurricane Center said. By Tuesday night, Alex was back in the Atlantic and headed away from land.

The eye of the storm just barely passed by Cape Hatteras, leaving the east side of the hurricane – with the strongest wind and heaviest rain – out at sea instead of battering communities still recovering from last year’s devastating Hurricane Isabel. Still, the island town of Beaufort, between the mainland and the Outer Banks, got more than 5 inches of rain.

“This is different from Isabel last year, which came into the coast perpendicularly and went inland and into Virginia,” said Richard Knabb, meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “This is comparatively a grazing blow, but still a pretty significant one for Cape Hatteras and areas nearby there.”

No injuries were reported, according to a statement from Gov. Mike Easley.

The National Guard was called in to help along some parts of the coast.

Waves washing ashore on Hatteras Island made the island’s only highway impassable for much of the day from just south of Oregon Inlet, at the north end of the island, to near the town of Avon, the weather service said. The highway connects to the mainland north of Oregon Inlet.

Outside the Comfort Inn in Buxton, south of Rodanthe, the hotel manager looked outside as ice machines and trash bins floated down the highway.

“This is far worse than I expected,” said manager Pat Cavanaugh, who has lived in Frisco for eight years. There’s not a lot you can do to prepare, he added. “You can board up windows, but we weren’t expected to need something like that.”

Traveling salesman Bill Morris of Virginia Beach, Va., who makes a three-day trip along the Outer Banks each week, agreed.

“I thought it was bad, I really did,” he said. “If I had known it was going to be this intense, I would have turned around and stayed in Kitty Hawk. It was worse than I thought it was going to be.”

Alex bore little similarity to the 100-mph Isabel, North Carolina’s most recent hurricane, which made landfall Sept. 18, 2003, damaging more than 53,000 homes in 47 counties.

At the peak of power outages on Tuesday, a total of 10,000 customers were without electricity, including 6,800 customers on Hatteras Island from Rodanthe to Hatteras Village and all 2,100 customers on Ocracoke Island.

By evening, power had returned to many parts of the islands and motel parking lots remained full, indicating that the storm had chased off few tourists.

At 8 p.m. Tuesday, Alex was well out to sea, with the hurricane center reporting the storm’s center about 110 miles east-northeast of Cape Hatteras and headed northeast. The center said the storm was expected to impact the northeastern United States only with some large swells.

The National Weather Service discontinued all warnings related to the storm.

Only two hurricane seasons on record have had a first tropical depression form later than July 31. But forecasters said a late start has no bearing on hurricane activity.

Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.

AP-ES-08-03-04 2218EDT

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