SALTER PATH, N.C. (AP) – Hurricane Ophelia crawled along the North Carolina coast on Thursday, prolonging its punishment of the Outer Banks with rain and wind as coastal residents elsewhere returned home to damaged homes and businesses.

While the weakening storm’s center was expected to stay just off shore, the northern side of Ophelia’s eyewall, the ring of high wind surrounding the eye, could remain over the Outer Banks until midday today, the National Hurricane Center said.

Ophelia was “just beating us to death,” said Alton Ballance, who lives on the Outer Banks’ Ocracoke Island, just south of Hatteras. “It’s similar to the wintertime nor’easters that lay there and beat you for a couple of days,” he said.

Gov. Mike Easley said getting a handle on the scope of damage was difficult because of the storm’s slow path, first affecting the state’s southeastern coast on Tuesday and then crawling north and east Wednesday and Thursday to its position off the Outer Banks.

“It’s almost like working three different storms,” Easley said.

More than 81,000 homes and businesses remained without power Thursday in eastern North Carolina, utilities said.

It appeared the mainland had dodged the severe flooding many had feared, but the wind and waves had taken a toll.

“We were not expecting this,” said Laurie Garner, whose boyfriend’s restaurant was severely damaged at Salter Path on Bogue Banks, southwest of Morehead City. “It just beat us and beat us and beat us.”

Ophelia, an erratic storm that has looped and meandered north since forming off the Florida coast last week, stalled early Thursday afternoon, then resumed a drift toward the east-northeast at about 3 mph, the hurricane center said.

Its top sustained wind speed had eased back to 75 mph, barely strong enough to be classified as a hurricane. Since it was weakening and its direction was toward open ocean, a hurricane warning for the North Carolina coast was reduced to a tropical storm warning, extending from Cape Lookout northward to Cape Charles Light, Va., including the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, the hurricane center said.

The storm was blamed for one traffic death. Earlier, a surfer disappeared in rough water off the coast of South Carolina.

On the Outer Banks, Dare County officials said Hatteras Island reported gusts to 95 mph.

Other than power outages, Hatteras Island was in pretty good shape, said county spokeswoman Sharon Sullivan.

Farther north on the Outer Banks, most businesses remained open in Nags Head and Manteo and a few people braved intermittent rain squalls to shop or check out the surf.

David Goddard, 58, of Asbhurn, Va., said he was a bit disappointed in Ophelia.

“I’m a weather junkie,” he said. “I thought it was gonna be worse than this.”

Ocean water was not expected to wash over the islands, although coastal storm surge flooding of 4 feet to 6 feet above normal tide was expected, along with large and battering waves.

At 5 p.m. EDT, Ophelia was centered about 30 miles south-southwest of Cape Hatteras and about 60 miles east-northeast of Cape Lookout. It was drifting toward the east-northeast at about 3 mph, and was expected to pick up a little forward speed Friday, the hurricane center said.

A tropical storm watch was issued for southeastern Massachusetts, including Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

South of the Outer Banks, Ophelia had cleared out and residents were able to begin surveying their damages.

At Salter Path on Bogue Banks, Ophelia had ripped off the back of Vernon Guthrie’s Crab Shack restaurant and chairs and tables were floating in water, according to Garner, Guthrie’s girlfriend. It was the sixth time in 30 years a storm has taken off that side of the restaurant, which looks out on Bogue Sound, Guthrie said.

“Yeah, we’re going to rebuild. One more time ain’t going to hurt,” he said.

Ophelia is the 15th named storm and seventh named hurricane of this year’s busy Atlantic season, which ends Nov. 30.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.