September 12, 2005

Hurricane Ophelia churns off East Coast

By Gene Cherry

SALVO, North Carolina (Reuters) - Hurricane Ophelia churned
near the southeastern U.S. coast on Monday, forcing wary
residents off the most vulnerable islands of North Carolina's
Outer Banks.

Heavy rains from Ophelia's outer squalls could soak parts
of the North and South Carolina coasts by Monday night, the
National Hurricane Center in Miami said. But the main core of
the storm had barely budged in days.

The center of Ophelia, the first hurricane to threaten the
United States since Katrina devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast two
weeks ago, was about 275 miles south-southwest of Cape
Hatteras, North Carolina, at 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT).

The hurricane was stationary and was expected to turn
slowly northwest, putting the center over or near the North
Carolina coast on Wednesday.

Ophelia had top sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph), just
over the 74 mph (119 kph) threshold to become a hurricane, and
little change in strength was expected, hurricane center
forecasters said.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley has declared a state of
emergency and put 200 National Guardsmen on stand-by for

"Basically we are just monitoring the storm and if it does
come our way, we feel we are ready," Everett Clendenin, a
spokesman for the North Carolina Emergency Management Center,
said on Sunday.

Local officials ordered 3,000 tourists and 800 residents to
evacuate low-lying Ocracoke Island, which is accessible only by
boat or plane.


Visitors heeded the warnings and crowded onto ferries
across Pamlico Sound back to the mainland on Sunday, Hyde
County Emergency Management Coordinator Tony Spencer said.

He said the ferries would shut down on Monday afternoon and
the island was at risk of flooding.

More than 100,000 tourists and residents were on the
islands of the Outer Banks in two other North Carolina
counties, Dare and Currituck. Local authorities would decide on
Monday if evacuations were necessary on those islands, which
are linked to the mainland by roads and bridges.

A tropical storm warning and hurricane watch were in effect
from north of Edisto Beach, South Carolina, northeastward to
Cape Lookout, North Carolina.

A hurricane watch cautions residents that fierce winds and
other hurricane conditions were possible within 36 hours, the
hurricane center said.

A tropical storm warning alerts 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 dislodged 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.

Ophelia sent gusty winds and 6-foot (2-meter) waves over
parts of the North Carolina coast on Sunday, eroding beaches
and triggering dangerous rip currents.

In the Hatteras Island town of Salvo, Betz Mullen moved her
lawn furniture to safety and cooked up the food in her
refrigerator in anticipation that the electricity could go out.
Mullen, who has lived on the Outer Banks for more than 30
years, said she was staying put despite having seen the
catastrophic damage caused by Katrina.

"Ophelia is a Category 1. I have been through Category 1
and 2 hurricanes before. I am not leaving for a Category 1 or 2
storm," she said.