Heavy rain hits N.C. coast as Ophelia picks up strength
CAROLINA BEACH, N.C. – Hurricane Ophelia lashed the North Carolina coast with high winds and heavy rains Wednesday, beginning an anticipated two-day assault that threatened serious flooding and an 11-foot storm surge.”If you have not heeded the warning before, let me be clear right now: Ophelia is a dangerous storm,” Gov. Mike Easley said from Raleigh, appealing especially to those in flood-prone areas to evacuate.Ophelia was moving so slowly – just 7 mph Wednesday night – that authorities expected the storm’s passage through North Carolina to take 48 hours from the start of rainfall on the southeastern coast Tuesday afternoon to the storm’s anticipated exit into the Atlantic late Thursday.The storm had sustained winds of 85 mph, the National Hurricane Center said. Hurricane warnings covered the entire North Carolina coast from the South Carolina line to Virginia, where a tropical storm warning covered the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.More than 12 inches of rain had fallen on Oak Island at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, said meteorologist Jeff Orrock with the National Weather Service in Raleigh.More than 120,000 homes and business were without power in eastern North Carolina, electric utilities said.On Ocean Isle Beach, south of Carolina Beach, a 50-foot section of beachfront road was washed out by heavy surf and the only bridge to the island was closed.Jetnella Gibbs and her family made their way to a shelter at a Craven County high school after the rain started Tuesday.”We noticed the street was starting to fill up, and I said, ‘It’s time to go,”‘ she said. “I know if this little bit here has flooded the street, what will it do when it really pours?”The storm’s eye was expected to brush the coast between midnight and 2 a.m., but it might not come ashore as it hugs and parallels the barrier islands of the Outer Banks through Thursday, officials said.At 11 p.m., Ophelia’s center was about 20 miles south-southeast of Cape Lookout and moving northeast at about 7 mph toward Cape Hatteras, about 85 miles away.Water pushed out of Bogue Sound washed into garages and ground floors while ocean surf chewed away the end of a hotel’s pier on Bogue Banks, a barrier island.Following the criticism of its response to Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had 250 workers on the ground – a larger-than-usual contingent given Ophelia’s size. FEMA also put a military officer, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Brian Peterman, in place to command any federal response the storm might require.The storm’s slow, meandering path to the coast gave FEMA more time to get staff on the ground than is usually the case with North Carolina hurricanes, said Shelley Boone, the agency’s team leader for Ophelia.President Bush issued an emergency declaration for 37 counties in eastern North Carolina, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to coordinate disaster relief efforts.Easley said he had spoken to Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff and that National Guard teams were prepared to evacuate sick, frail and elderly residents.Craven County expected a 6- to 8-foot storm surge in the Harlowe area near the Neuse River – an area that flooded during Isabel two years ago, said Stanley Kite, the county emergency management coordinator.The Beaufort County town of Washington ordered an evacuation of a 20-block area that flooded during Hurricane Fran in 1996. A storm surge of up to 9 feet was forecast along the Pamlico River and water wasn’t expected to recede until Thursday morning, county manager Paul Spruill said.Officials on the Outer Banks warned Ophelia could bring 10 hours of hurricane-force wind to exposed Hatteras Island. The southernmost villages of Hatteras, Frisco and Buxton were expected to get the worst of the winds and the flooding.”It’s an island – the water will come over, it’ll go out – and we’ll do it all over again,” said lifelong Buxton resident Tiffany Bigham, 27.”You grow up knowing it’s a part of life,” she said.Ophelia is the 15th named storm and seventh named hurricane of this year’s busy Atlantic season, which ends Nov. 30.—Associated Press Writers Kristen Gelineau in Hatteras, N.C., Margaret Lillard in Havelock, N.C., and Natalie Gott, Martha Waggoner and Gary Robertson in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.—On the Net:National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov
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