Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Hurricane Ophelia Begins Lashing North Carolina Coast

Hurricane Ophelia strengthened and slowly moved toward the North Carolina coast, bringing rain and winds as high as 85 mph to beachfront communities along the state's barrier islands.
North Carolina Governor Mike Easley and Virginia Governor Mark Warner each declared a state of emergency to free up resources ahead of the storm. Schools were closed in some coastal counties of North Carolina, and 350 National Guard troops were called up for storm response, said Jamie Kritzer, a spokesman for the North Carolina Emergency Operations Center.
Easley said storm damage probably will be worse than the state received from Hurricane Isabel in 2003 and Hurricane Alex in 2004 because Ophelia is moving more slowly.
``If you have been asked to evacuate, please do so, because these floods will be worse than anticipated yesterday,'' Easley said in a televised news conference. When high winds arrive, ``we cannot come in to get you.''
North Carolina ordered mandatory evacuations of low-lying, flood-prone areas in five counties and voluntary evacuations in nine others, said Hunter Birckhead, a state emergency operations spokesman. Voluntary evacuation was advised in two coastal South Carolina counties as well.
The latest Atlantic Ocean storm comes less than three weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated coastal Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and flooded New Orleans. Ophelia is a Category 1 hurricane, the weakest on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. It may knock down trees and power lines along with the flooding, National Hurricane Center spokesman Mark McInerney said.
``It's a significantly lesser hurricane than Katrina, but it's still a hurricane, and people do get in trouble with 80 mile-per-hour winds,'' McInerney said in an interview today.
Early Effects
The storm was lashing Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, near Wilmington, with winds of 68 mph, and gusts reached about 77 mph, the hurricane center said. Rain was falling from Wilmington to Surf City, 25 miles away, spokesman Richard Pasch said.
Ophelia was centered about 40 miles (64 kilometers) south- southeast of Wilmington and moving north-northeast at almost 7 mph (11 kph), according to a 2 p.m. advisory from the National Hurricane Center. Ophelia is forecast to pick up speed today and reach land tomorrow near Cape Lookout.
Storm's Breadth
The strongest winds extend as far as 50 miles from the storm's center. The hurricane-force winds are expected to reach North Carolina's southeastern coast later today and the Outer Banks tonight and tomorrow. The U.S. Census Bureau said about 2.4 million people live on the North Carolina and Virginia coasts where hurricane or tropical storm-force winds may hit.
Ophelia is expected to bring as much as 15 inches (38 centimeters) of rain to North Carolina's coast and 4 to 8 inches to northeastern South Carolina and eastern North Carolina, the hurricane center said. It also warned of possible tornadoes along North Carolina's coast.
Tropical storm-force winds are reaching North Carolina's coast from near the South Carolina border to Cape Lookout, according to the advisory. Ophelia may cause coastal storm-surge flooding of as much as 7 feet (2 meters) above normal tides and as much as 11 feet at the heads of bays and rivers.
``When you have all that rain dropping on areas that are already flood-prone, there's a significant threat that we could be seeing some flooding,'' Kritzer said in an interview.
Shelters Opened
About 56 shelters are open in North Carolina, and downed trees and road closings are reported in Brunswick County on the southeastern coast, Birckhead said. About 50,000 customers have lost power, mostly in Brunswick and New Hanover counties, where some flooding already has occurred, Easley said.
South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford's office said shelters are open in that state's Charleston, Horry and Georgetown counties.
A hurricane warning, meaning such conditions are expected within 24 hours, was in effect from Little River Inlet, South Carolina, north to the North Carolina-Virginia state line. A 36-hour hurricane watch extended from north of the Virginia border to Cape Charles Light, including parts of Chesapeake Bay.
A tropical-storm warning was in effect for Little River Inlet to north of the South Santee River in South Carolina.
After it brushes the North Carolina coast, Ophelia is forecast to move northeast into open water by the weekend.


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