KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. (WACH, AP) -- From North Carolina to New Jersey, Hurricane Irene's winds and storm surge fell short of the doomsday predictions. Irene has weakened into a tropical storm, but the danger is far from over: With rivers still rising, severe flooding is feared across much of the East Coast over the next few days.
More than 4.5 million homes and businesses along the coast lost power, and at least 21 deaths were blamed on the storm.
Irene is expected to drop below tropical storm strength later Sunday. Forecasters expect it to reach Canada later Sunday or early Monday.
With roads impassable because of high water and fallen trees, it could be days before the full extent of the damage is known. But as day broke Sunday, many places reported only light damage consisting of little more than downed trees and power lines.
"I think it's a little strong to say we dodged a bullet. However, it certainly could have turned out worse for the Hampton Roads area" in Virginia, said National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Montefusco.
At the same time, officials warned of the possibility of extreme flooding as runoff from the storm makes its way into creeks and rivers.
Irene brought six inches to a foot of rain to many places along the East Coast. In one eastern North Carolina neighborhood, two-dozen homes were destroyed by flooding and officials feared more damage could be uncovered there.
Some areas of the Northeast had soggy ground even before the storm because of an extremely rainy August.
"We are going to look at a record flooding situation here, both at the shore and inland," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on ABC's "This Week."
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell had initially warned that Irene could be a "catastrophic" monster with record storm surges of up to 8 feet.
But in Virginia Beach, the city posted on Twitter late Saturday that initial reports were promising, with the resort area suffering minimal damage. And in Ocean City, Md., Mayor Rick Meehan reported: "Scattered power outages. No reports of major damage!"
In Lusby, Md., Constellation Energy Nuclear Group said one of two nuclear reactors at Calvert Cliffs went off-line automatically because of Irene's winds. Constellation said the plant was safe.
Floodwaters were rising across New Jersey, and more than 2,000 National Guardsmen were helping with search and rescue work as officials assessed the damage. The Raritan River, which caused disastrous flooding after it was swelled by rain from Hurricane Floyd 12 years ago, was not expected to crest until Sunday evening.
Still, with skies clearing Sunday morning, some of those living on the coast were cautiously optimistic.
After spending the night hunkered down in his Pleasantville, N.J., home overnight without electricity, Harry Webber went outside in a fruitless search for place to buy a cup of coffee.
"I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of my town is still in one piece," he said.
Late last week, Irene was a fearsome Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of around 115 mph as it barreled across open water toward the East Coast. Forecasters predicted it could grow to a scarier Category 4 before blowing ashore.
By Friday, though, the storm began losing steam. It came ashore the next day in North Carolina a mere Category 1 with winds of about 85 mph, and had weakened into a tropical storm by the time its eye hit New York City on Sunday.
While the National Hurricane Center accurately predicted Irene's track, the agency's director acknowledged that forecasting the strength of the winds days in advance can be difficult because of the myriad factors involved.
"We're not completely sure how the interplay of various features is causing the strength of a storm to change," said Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center.
North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said that Irene inflicted significant damage along her state's coast, but that the full extent was unclear because some areas were unreachable because of high water or downed power lines.
Perdue planned an aerial tour Sunday of the hardest-hit counties after TV coverage showed downed trees, toppled utility poles and power lines and mangled awnings.
In North Carolina's Craven County, officials said that as many as 25 homes were destroyed by swells from the Neuse River in a neighborhood that was hit hard by Hurricane Isabel in 2003. The fire department rescued people from a handful of houses on Saturday.
Officials in North Carolina's Dare County said they were advised there was extensive flooding that needed to be checked out. About 2,500 people on Hatteras Island have been cut off by damaged roads, and there are plans to bring them supplies by ferry. It's not clear yet how bad damage was on the island.
Elsewhere, authorities suggested Irene didn't create the kind of havoc that had been anticipated.
"We were prepared for a lot worse, but we got lucky on this one," said Bruce Shell, New Hanover County, N.C., manager.
He said many of the 70,000 homes that lost power Saturday were back online in the evening and a wastewater spill at Wrightsville Beach appeared to be minor.
Pinehurst dentist Harwell Palmer said his home in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., lost a few pieces of siding and there was some street flooding, but a pier that took a pounding from the waves was still standing. The storm did gobble up some of the sand.
"The main concern we will have going forward is the loss of beach," he said.
The question still facing the region was whether Irene's effects over the next few days would match the mess left behind by such storms as Floyd and Isabel.
In 1999, Floyd dropped at least 15 inches of rain on eastern North Carolina. The flooding was the most damaging in the state's history, topping $3 billion in North Carolina. Four years later, Isabel brought hurricane conditions to eastern North Carolina and southeast Virginia, causing about $1 billion in damage.
In the resort town of Ocean City, Md., damage appeared minimal. A few small trees along a major road had been uprooted. Scattered piles of sand about two feet high covered areas of the boardwalk. The end of a wooden pier was sagging and a wooden railing was askew.
At the Quietstorm surf shop on the boardwalk, part of a wall where the shop's name is advertised had been torn off, exposing wiring and scattering insulation. Locals, though, said they had seen worse during ordinary storms.
"I think we dodged a bullet," said LeAnn Price.
Irene pounded the South Carolina coastline Friday and early Saturday with heavy rains, weak storm surge, Tropical Storm force winds and very rough surf. The State's Emergency Management Division updated their damage reports to include trees down in Marlboro County.
Tropical Storm Warnings have been allowed to expire along the immediate South Carolina coast.
Saturday afternoon ushered in calmer conditions for the Palmetto State. However, a slight breeze combined with hot temperatures show Irene still has an impact on our weather. Overnight Friday into Saturday morning, South Carolina's coastline continued to see winds over 35 miles per hour along with squally weather. An overnight fog development made travel even more difficult then it already was. Many locations along the Grand Strand experienced flooding and impressive wave heights.
South Carolina had several reports of sea related injuries Thursday. Florida officials reported 8 injuries due to rough surf from Irene.
The South Carolina National Guard sent troops to Virginia for aid.
State regulators will evaluate South Carolina's coastline for beach erosion. Damage teams will also assess areas of the coast.
Check out live webcams from Myrtle Beach to see what's going on right now:
WPDE Boardwalk and Promenade Crown Reef Resort Harbourgate Marina Cherry Grove Sea Watch Resort Springmaid Pier
The storm is also responsible for knocking out power to coastal customers, according to utility officials. More than 8,300 homes statewide experienced power outages Friday afternoon. Another 1,800 people were without power on Fripp Island in Beaufort County as the outer bands of the storm pass over with winds and rains. Emergency Management officials noted that many locations again have power.
Schools along the coast were cancelled or delayed as they see the impact of Irene.Related Stories... Gas prices likely going up as Hurricane Irene nears Coastal surfers stoked for storm waves Red cross volunteers mobilize ahead of Irene
The South Carolina Emergency Management Division has lowered the level of readiness to OpCon 4. As a result of the potential South Carolina impact, Governor Haley and the state's Emergency Management Division are carefully monitoring Irene. The governor briefed local an state media Wednesday afternoon. Haley stated she is in contact with North Carolina's governor to offer potential aid to our neighbor.
The Coast Guard has increased its alert level on the South Carolina coast and is advising large vessels to make preparations to leave or to let the agency know they are staying as Hurricane Irene approaches.
Byron Miller of the State Ports Authority says the Port of Charleston remains open but officials are closely monitoring the progress of Irene.
The reason Irene did not make landfall in South Carolina is because of a ridge of high pressure that will act as a road block and deflect Irene to the east.
The weather service office in Charleston and the state Emergency Management Division in Columbia are reminding residents it's a good time for everyone to review hurricane preparation plans.
The one thing that is certain is that this is a good time to review your personal storm preparedness plans. Regardless of Irene's impact, this is the heart of hurricane season. It's never too early to prepare, but it can be too late.
Read more in the related stories box above or by clicking here .
The SkyWACH Weather Team will continue tracking Irene closely to keep you and your family safe. We'll keep updating you on Twitter, Facebook and right here on MidlandsConnect . You can also get more news from our sister station WPDE in Myrtle Beach by visiting CarolinaLive.com.
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(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)