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The wrath of Fran // Floods flow as storm goes north

Hurricane Fran left hundreds of people stranded on North Carolina's barrier islands Friday, and in Virgina rescuers fought to reach people threatened by flash floods.

Fran weakened, finally into a depression, but it remained dangerous as it poured rain on already saturated ground.

The death toll rose to 17 and could go higher because officials had no way of knowing about other possible fatalities on some of North Carolina's barrier islands. About 140 people who rode out the storm on Bald Head Island were without communication, and heavy surf kept boaters away.

More than a million utility customers lost power, and many people may wait days before it is restored.

The barrier islands just east of Wilmington were most heavily hit. Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Topsail Beach were completely submerged during the height of the storm, and most of their buildings were damaged.

Throughout the day the pungent odor of shattered pine trees hung in the air.

Entire neighborhoods remained knee-deep in water Friday, and in the sound west of Topsail Beach, one home could be seen floating slowly away.

One small island police department _ housed in a mobile home _ was demolished. A 180-unit condominium complex lost all its porches. Erosion destroyed the high bluffs of Shell Island. Winds threw boats out of marinas and surging water ripped up piers by their roots.

For thousands of island families, Fran's departure marked the beginning of a new nightmare _ the long wait to return to their homes.

The damage was too bad, officials told them, the roads too dangerous. It may be a week before some are allowed back. Maybe longer.

Ted and Judy Gall sat in a parked car outside a shut down BP service station _ the closest police would allow them to come to their Surf City condominium. Tired after spending a night in a Red Cross shelter, the Galls were sweating in Friday's bright sunlight. They wondered when or where they would shower. Their condo was three miles away, down a partially submerged road strewn with tree limbs.

"It feels like when you're making an important phone call," Ted Gall said. "You make it, but then they put you on hold and put on that music. Our lives are on hold."

National Guardsmen threatened to arrest anyone venturing into evacuated areas.

"Sure, we are concerned about the convenience of residents," said Wrightsville Beach Town Manager Tony Cauble. "But this is a safety issue."

By late afternoon, Fran's top winds had declined from 115 mph to about 29 mph, and the broad storm was centered over West Virginia, on a path to dump rain through much of the Northeast over the next couple of days.

Raleigh, N.C., _ home to 260,000 people _ was largely dark Friday.

"It's certainly the worst storm that's hit North Carolina in the 12 years that I've been here," said Thomas Hegele of the State Emergency Response Team.

In Virginia, where the ground had been saturated by days of rain before Fran dumped up to 10 more inches, rescue workers struggled in boats, helicopters and military vehicles to reach people endangered by flash floods.

"They just waited too long," said Leon Rickard, the emergency coordinator in Page County in northwestern Virginia. "When they saw the streams rising, they should have gotten out."

Water lapped over reservoirs and threatened to breach earthen dams. The town of Elkton, in the western foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, was an island, with water covering all roads out.

Sam Reeves and Mike Hudeo were stuck in a tree at 10 a.m., and two men who tried to rescue them became stranded in another tree. All four finally were pulled to safety by a Coast Guard helicopter about 7 p.m.

President Clinton declared a major disaster in North Carolina, and Virginia Gov. George Allen asked him to give his state the same status, making storm victims eligible for federal loans.

A preliminary industry estimate of insured damage was put at about $625-million, making Fran the seventh most costly hurricane on record.

"We'll be fine again'

By late Friday lights in Wilmington were winking back on, and people were getting on with their lives.

Chainsaws snarled as people began clearing downed trees, even in the wind and rain. Both the Raleigh-Durham and Myrtle Beach, S.C., airports reopened.

Bruce Cartier, who lives on the intracoastal waterway across from Wrightsville Beach, looked outside Friday morning to discover a boat planted in his front lawn. The name painted on its rear was "Hurricane Rock." A crowd of curious residents wandered his neighborhood on bikes and on foot, carrying home video cameras.

Cartier, a 70-year-old who remained in his home through Fran, watched the waters rise 38 inches _ to nearly the 100-year water mark on a pole in his yard.

There were live oaks blown down in his yard, but Cartier's house was untouched. "A lot of the damage is going to be water," he said, "because there are some very sturdy buildings here. The really old ones are solid. And this place was one of the first in the country to enact the strictest of building codes. We have some of the strongest codes in the nation."

Business people began downplaying the effect Fran likely will have on tourism _ a crucial part of the local economy. "All in all, people will be back," said Carolyn Milam, division manager for a condo rental company, Coastal Rental Properties.

"After Bertha, we were fine and we'll be fine again."

_ Information from Times wires was used in this report.