The unwanted guest - Hurricane Earl - departed Friday just in time to clear the holiday weekend for thousands of welcome visitors to North Carolina beaches.
With little damage and no injuries reported by Friday afternoon, tourists were flooding back onto the roads of the northern Outer Banks and Bogue Banks. State road crews had cleared sand that had washed onto some stretches of N.C. 12 and expected to reopen it for access to Hatteras Island by 7 a.m. today.
Along the Outer Banks oceanfront, "Vacancy" signs flickered on at hotels to welcome weekend travelers. Businesses along U.S. 158 seemed to waken like children at a slumber party: first one, then another, until the busy route began to resemble its pre-hurricane self. Green and purple beach chairs and red and orange windsocks returned to storefront sidewalks, a rainbow after the storm.
The Outer Banks Boarding Co. declared on its marquee "WE EARL OPEN" to surfers in need of supplies.
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The smell of fresh coffee announced the Morning View was back in business at 7:30 a.m.
"Once people realized we were open, it's been steady ever since," said Jessie Beacham, a barista at the coffee shop. Soon, she said, it would be as if Earl never happened.
The tourists seemed determined to wring as much as they could out of the dregs of summer, hurricane or not. Instead of heading home, many with weeklong rentals who were evacuated Thursday came back to enjoy their last full day on the coast.
"Almost immediately you saw the out-of-state license tags riding around," said Lee Nettles, managing director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. "Folks kind of got out of the way last night, but they're already coming back."
Tourism on the coast had rebounded sharply this year after recession-hammered seasons in 2008 and 2009. On the Outer Banks, Nettles said, room occupancy tax receipts were up 16 percent in July from the same month in 2009.
Merchants had hoped to end the summer with the chamber of commerce version of a victory lap until the hurricane drew a bead on North Carolina early in the week. Now, with a forecast for gorgeous weekend weather, it looks as though most will still ring up hefty sales.
Even with days of media buildup and official warnings as Earl approached, no one canceled a reservation with Spectrum Properties, a real estate company in Atlantic Beach that specializes in vacation rentals.
"We've had a lot of people call," said broker Casey Wagner, but only to make sure everything is OK.
If a customer didn't call, someone from the office reached out. The company will welcome about 20 renters this weekend.
Even Friday morning, as wind and rain were still pummeling the Outer Banks, hopeful would-be visitors were already calling from Virginia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
Holly Slack, front desk attendant at the John Yancey Inn in Kill Devil Hills, was deluged with inquiries. Guests at her hotel evacuated Thursday, and while many of them canceled their weekend reservations, others want to take their places.
"I'm telling them not to come back until at least 12 o'clock," Slack said; by then the storm was expected to have moved out.
Vacancies fill fast
At Atlantic Beach, The Caribbe Inn, a 13-room motel painted lush shades of pink and blue, will probably be full this weekend, said Trish Lawrence, who owns the motel with her husband, Darrel.
She had three scuba divers cancel their rooms because of the weather. But Lawrence was so confident she'd fill those empty rooms that she turned away a caller's request for a two-night stay, sticking with their policy of a three-night minimum.
If the motel fills, it will be a normal Labor Day weekend for the Lawrences.
"We're usually turning folks away," she said.
Although Hurricane Earl could be blamed for more than 20 cancellations at the Sheraton in Atlantic Beach, manager Tim Peters was confident that good weather would help fill the oceanfront hotel this weekend.
The hotel was evacuated Thursday afternoon. Only law enforcement, media and essential hotel personnel were allowed to stay. Media personnel were asked to sign a form that acknowledged they understood the dangers of the impending storm.
All that seemed a distant memory Friday morning, as cheery hotel staff members answered a stream of calls from curious would-be vacationers. After greeting callers, the next phrase uttered by desk attendants was almost universally the same: "It's beautiful," which meant everyone was asking about the weather.
Ferries to Ocracoke Island resumed Friday for residents only. N.C. 12 on Hatteras was flooded, so neither island was to be open to visitors until this morning. Some people's plans Friday were altered.
Jim and Bettie McGarry from the Richmond, Va., area spent Thursday night at the Hilton in Kitty Hawk and had hoped to get back to their vacation house in Rodanthe on Hatteras Island on Friday, to make sure it's ok for a family to rent starting Sunday. The renters had already been in touch to say they were coming.
"They want to get out of Pennsylvania," Bettie McGarry said. "They said, 'We're coming no matter what.'"