Islands empty, school close as rain begins falling from slowly approaching Hurricane Ophelia | VailDaily.com

Islands empty, school close as rain begins falling from slowly approaching Hurricane Ophelia

Associated Press

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, N.C. – Vulnerable islands were evacuated and mainland schools were closed Tuesday as Ophelia again strengthened to a hurricane and wobbled closer to land with a threat of flooding rain.The National Hurricane Center upgraded the storm’s status Tuesday evening, saying maximum sustained winds had reached 75 mph, with higher gusts. The storm was graded a Category One hurricane, but the center said further strengthening was possible in the hours ahead.”I don’t really want to mess with it,” Bruce McIlvaine of Logan Township, N.J., said as he packed to leave the Outer Banks’ Hatteras Island before his vacation ended. “You’re on a spit of land a dozen miles into the ocean.”A hurricane warning extended from the South Santee River in South Carolina north to Oregon Inlet at Pamlico Sound in North Carolina, meaning hurricane conditions were expected within 24 hours.A hurricane watch and tropical storm warning were in effect from the Oregon Inlet north to the North Carolina-Virginia line and southward from the South Santee River to Edisto Beach in South Carolina.After taunting coastal residents for days, the storm appeared ready to move ashore, as heavy rain battered South Carolina’s northern coast and the beaches of southeastern North Carolina.In Carolina Beach, south of Wrightsville Beach, officials reported a foot of water on one road due to heavy wind and a high tide.Unlike Hurricane Katrina’s devastating charge at the Gulf Coast, the week-old Ophelia had been following a meandering path, making predictions of its landfall difficult. The hurricane center’s latest forecasts showed it running along the coast, then veering through Pamlico Sound, crossing the Outer Banks and heading back out to sea.Its slow movement – 4 mph as of 5:30 p.m. EDT – meant heavy rain could linger over land, possibly causing serious flooding. The hurricane center said up to 15 inches of rain was possible in eastern North Carolina.At least six North Carolina counties ordered mandatory evacuations of some areas and seven others had voluntary evacuations.Along the exposed Outer Banks chain, all residents and visitors were ordered to evacuate Hatteras Island on Tuesday, visitors had been ordered off Ocracoke Island and the National Park Service closed the Cape Hatteras lighthouse and the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills.Schools were closed in several coastal counties in both North and South Carolina, while classes were canceled at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and East Carolina University in Greenville.The Air Force sent some aircraft from bases in Virginia and North Carolina to airfields farther inland and moved others into hangars.With power outages expected, North Carolina utilities recalled workers they had sent to the Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina. North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley said coastal residents should be prepared to go without power from two to three days.”The beaches we expect to take a real beating,” Easley said. “The bottom line is we’re definitely going to get flooding, not just on the coast but in low-lying areas as the rivers swell from the storm surge itself.”South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford had called for a voluntary evacuation of oceanfront and riverside areas in the northeastern part of his state. Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner declared a state of emergency. National Guard troops were on duty in parts of North Carolina and Virginia.A surfer was missing along the South Carolina coast, and the search had been suspended because of the rough sea.At 5:30 p.m. EDT, Ophelia was centered about 110 miles south of Wilmington and about 110 miles east-southeast of Charleston, S.C., and was moving slowly north-northwest. A gradual northerly turn was expected during the night or on Wednesday, but continued erratic motion was likely, the hurricane center said.The storm’s likely path across Pamlico Sound and the Outer Banks would mean the biggest flooding threat would come not from the Atlantic Ocean but from the sounds – the bodies of water between the mainland and the barrier islands, said Jonathan Hobbs, a spokesman for the Dare County Joint Information Center. Wind can push enough water out of the sounds to expose their bottoms, he said.Ophelia became a tropical storm Wednesday off the Florida coast and later strengthened to a hurricane. It is the 15th named storm and seventh hurricane in this year’s busy Atlantic hurricane season, which began June 1 and ends Nov. 30.—Associated Press Writers Jeffrey Collins in Avon, N.C., and Tom Foreman Jr. and Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.—On the Net:National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov