September 12, 2005

Ophelia weakens to tropical storm

By Gene Cherry

SALVO, North Carolina (Reuters) - Hurricane Ophelia
weakened to a tropical storm off the southeastern U.S. coast on
Monday as it drifted in fits and starts toward the North
Carolina coastline.

The storm had barely budged in days and its top sustained
winds repeatedly strengthened and weakened just enough to
wobble back and forth across the 74 mph (119 kph) threshold
that separates a tropical storm from a hurricane.

At 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT), it was a tropical storm with 70
mph (112 kph) winds but was expected to strengthen back into a
hurricane in the next day or two, forecasters at the U.S.
National Hurricane Center said.

The center of Ophelia was about 260 miles south-southwest
of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. It was inching northwest and
the center was expected to move over or near the North Carolina
coast on Wednesday or Thursday, the forecasters said.

But the air currents that normally steer tropical cyclones
were unusually weak. "Therefore we have the unpleasant
possibility that the cyclone could linger near the southeast
United States through five days," the forecasters said.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley has declared a state of
emergency and put 200 National Guardsmen on stand-by for
deployment. Wary residents kept an eye on the storm, especially
along the 100-mile (160-km) chain of barrier islands known as
the Outer Banks.

Local officials ordered 3,000 tourists and 800 residents
off of low-lying Ocracoke Island, a popular vacation spot
accessible only by boat or plane.

Emergency managers were waiting to see what Ophelia would
do before ordering some 10,000 residents and visitors off the
other islands, which are linked to the mainland by roads and


"It's frustrating not knowing what the storm is going to do
and when," said artist Kathleen O'Neal, owner of the Island
Artworks on Ocracoke Island.

With the tourists gone, she expected to lose a week's worth
of business. She and her husband, a charter boat captain,
planned to ignore the evacuation order but had plywood on hand
to board up the shop's windows, she said.

"I will probably wait until Tuesday to decide whether to
put it up. It's a lot of work to put it up and take it down,
O'Neal said.

Ophelia sent gusty winds and 6-foot (2-meter) waves over
parts of the North and South Carolina coast, eroding beaches
and triggering dangerous rip currents. Heavy rains from
Ophelia's outer squalls could soak parts of the area by Monday
night, forecasters said.

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. A
tropical storm warning alerts residents they could feel the
outer fringes of the storm in the next 24 hours.

Ophelia would be the first hurricane to threaten the United
States since powerful Category 4 Katrina devastated the U.S.
Gulf Coast two weeks ago.

But Ophelia was expected to be no more than a Category 1
hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. Such storms
can bring 4- to 5-foot (1- to 1.5-meter) surges of water
ashore, flooding coastal roads and damaging piers. They can
fell trees and power lines but rarely cause structural damage.