September 12, 2005

Tropical Storm Ophelia keeps US coast guessing

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 coast.

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 5 p.m. (2100 GMT), it was a tropical storm with 70 mph
(112 kph) winds but was expected to strengthen back into a
hurricane on Tuesday, forecasters at the U.S. National
Hurricane Center said.

Ophelia's center was 260 miles south-southwest of Cape
Hatteras, North Carolina. The storm was inching northwest and
was expected to turn gradually north and move over or near the
North Carolina coast on Wednesday or Thursday, the forecasters

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

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

They urged people to voluntarily leave other barrier
islands, lowlands and beach towns in North and South Carolina
but were waiting to see what Ophelia would do before ordering
mandatory evacuations.


"This is a serious storm that's got the potential to do a
lot of damage and put lives in jeopardy if we don't take it
seriously," South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford said.

Artist Kathleen O'Neal, owner of the Island Artworks on
Ocracoke Island, expected to lose a week's worth of business
because the tourists had mostly left the island. She and her
husband, a charter boat captain, stayed behind and were
debating whether to cover the shop windows with plywood.

"It's frustrating not knowing what the storm is going to do
and when," O'Neal 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."

Ophelia sent gusty winds and beach-eating waves over the
coast and was expected to dump up to 8 inches of rain on parts
of the Carolinas in the next two days.

A tropical storm warning and hurricane watch were in effect
from north of Edisto Beach, South Carolina, northeastward to
Cape Lookout, North Carolina. A tropical storm warning alerts
residents to expect gale-force winds and heavy rain in 24
hours, while a hurricane warning indicates that hurricane
conditions are possible within 36 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.