Vignettes from Irene's march up the East Coast

August 28, 2011 - 4:40 PM

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (AP) — Parishioners of Holy Family Catholic Church sang a hymn on Sunday that assumed a new resonance the day after Hurricane Irene whipped through the area: "God will protect us from darkness and death," goes a line in "Rain Down."

"Across the street from us, a big tree came down, but it just fell right between the houses," parishioner Jeffrey Hale said. "No damage. It's the kind of thing that makes you want to come to church and give thanks."

Holy Family is the only Catholic parish for miles. The church draws its members from all over the Albemarle Sound, and many drive 30 minutes or more for services. About 80 people gathered for Mass on Sunday, less than a third of the usual crowd.

"Are we having Mass? Is the pope Catholic?" the Rev. James Buchholz told a carload of parishioners that pulled up to the church to ask if services were still on.

Buchholz also celebrated Mass Saturday evening at Holy Family as Irene was passing through the area.

"When you see the power of God in the kind of wind and rain we had yesterday, you realize there are many things to be thankful for," he said in an interview.

Like much of surrounding Elizabeth City, Holy Family largely escaped damage. A few leaks in the roof and a parking lot covered by leaves and twigs were about the extent of it. The sound system wasn't working, but the voices of the worshippers rang out in the building as they sang "Hallelujah" and recited a prayer improvised by Buchholz: "Lord, for those who were caught in inclement weather, for those who made it through and for those having rough times today, we pray. Lord, hear our prayer."

"This wasn't a hurricane. This was more like a Nor'Easter," said Bill Hogue, 82, a retired steelworker from Pittsburgh who's lived in the area for 18 years. Hogue said the winds knocked over some pillars below a porch at his home, but otherwise the damage was minimal.

Hogue's daughter had repeatedly asked her father, a Korean War veteran, to leave North Carolina ahead of Irene and join her in Northern Virginia. Hogue shook his head at the idea.

"Why? So I can be stuck on 95 with all the other idiots?" he said. "I've got brick walls and shatterproof windows. I'm fine here."

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MILFORD, Conn. (AP) — For wheelchair users like Pat Dillon, losing electrical power from Irene's wrath is not just an inconvenience but a danger.

The 52-year-old Milford resident was among those sitting in the dark at a nursing home where power and a generator failed. Dillon, who was partially paralyzed from a stroke, was worried that her chair would die soon if it's not charged and the insulin in her refrigerator would go bad.

"What if we're without power for days?" Dillon asked. "Once the refrigerator gets warm, my insulin goes bad. I could go into diabetic shock."

Another resident, Michael Lisej, 62, leaned against a cane, watching the powerful winds whip trees. He uses oxygen sometimes and was wondering how he would make it back to his third-floor apartment with no elevators.

"It's going to be rough on me to use the stairs," Lisej said. "I got bad knees, and I have a heart condition."

But Lisej was counting his blessings, too. The housing complex is close to Long Island Sound, which gushed up onto a road nearby.

"It's nobody's fault," he said. "It's an act of nature. It could have been worse. Maybe this building could have caved in."

Richard Sutphin, a 68-year-old resident of the complex who is diabetic, said he had to inject himself with insulin in the dark. He placed a flashlight on the table so he could see what he was doing.

Sutphin noted that many residents were without power.

"The longer it goes on the more nervous you get," he said.

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) __ In a hurricane that didn't fully deliver on its fearsome forecast, Casey and Denise Robinson's battered beach house is a terrible testament to the fickle nature of extreme weather.

The Robinsons and a crew of friends arrived early Sunday to begin picking up the pieces of the storm-ravaged family getaway snuggled in the dunes of the Sandbridge section of Virginia Beach. A tornado spawned by the storm ripped the roof off their house and clawed through its contents, tossing insulation, shards of glass and splintered wood into trees, dunes and low-slung cactus.

"This one's totaled," Casey Robinson said as he hastily gathered up boogie boards and other familiar remnants of the family beach house. "This is the only one on the beach that got hit this hard."

The Robinsons went about their salvage work with unexpected cheer, reminiscing about the good times they had there with their two children over the six or seven years they had owned the house.

"This foosball table's ruined," Denise Robinson said. "We played a lot of tournaments on that."

Casey Robinson, who said he and his wife and two teenage children were at their primary residence in Virginia Beach when the beach house was destroyed, summed up their sentiments with a shrug.

"No one got hurt. What are you going to do?" he asked.

The Robinsons managed to find humor in the ordeal, which included looters taking a bottle of vodka after the storm.

"They're probably all doing shots now," Denise Robinson said with a laugh.

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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Tom Breen in Elizabeth City, N.C.; John Christoffersen in Milford, Conn.; and Steve Szkotak in Virginia Beach, Va.