September 11, 2005

Hurricane Ophelia looms off U.S. East Coast

By Gene Cherry

SALVO, N.C. (Reuters) - Hurricane Ophelia parked off the
coast of the southeastern United States on Sunday and could hit
North Carolina later in the week, forecasters said.

The center of Ophelia, the first hurricane to threaten the
United States since Katrina devastated the
Louisiana-Mississippi coast two weeks ago, was about 255 miles
south of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina at 5 p.m. EDT (2100
GMT). It had top sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph), down from
85 mph (136 kph) earlier in the day.

Ophelia was not expected to strengthen in the next day but
could grow stronger after that, forecasters at the U.S.
National Hurricane Center said.

They expected the hurricane to begin drifting
west-northwest by Monday, with the center on or near the North
Carolina coast on Wednesday.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley declared a state of
emergency on Saturday and local officials issued a mandatory
evacuation order for nonresidents on the low-lying vacation
island of Ocracoke on North Carolina's Outer Banks.

A hurricane watch was in effect for 250 miles of coastline
from Edisto Beach, South Carolina, north to Cape Lookout, North
Carolina, cautioning residents that fierce winds and other
hurricane conditions were possible within 36 hours, the
hurricane center said.

A tropical storm warning was issued for that area south to
the Santee River in South Carolina, alerting residents they
could feel the outer fringes of the storm in the next 24 hours.

Ophelia was a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step
Saffir-Simpson scale, meaning it could be accompanied by a 4-
to 5-foot (1- to 1.5-meter) storm surge. Such storms can flood
coastal roads and damage piers, trees and unanchored mobile
homes but rarely cause structural damage.

Hurricane Katrina was a far more powerful Category 4 storm
when it hit the U.S. Gulf Coast.

More than 3,000 tourists and 800 residents had been on
Ocracoke Island, which is reachable only by boat or plane, Hyde
County Emergency Management Coordinator Tony Spencer said.

"The majority of the nonresidents appear to have left. The
ferries were full last night and this morning," Spencer said by
telephone from the island on Sunday.

More than 100,000 tourists and residents were on the
vulnerable islands of the Outer Banks in two other North
Carolina counties, Dare and Currituck, Dare County Emergency
Management Coordinator Sandy Sanderson said.

Dare County will decide on Monday whether to order
evacuation of Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks.

"We're in a holding pattern," Sanderson said.

The storm sent gusty winds and 6-foot (2-meter) waves over
parts of the North Carolina coast, eroded beaches and triggered
dangerous rip currents. The beaches were largely deserted on
Sunday despite the sunshine.

The National Weather Service in Morehead City said parts of
the state could see 7 inches of rain and localized flooding on
Tuesday and Wednesday.