August 30, 2006

Feeble Ernesto headed for Carolinas

By Jim Loney

MIAMI (Reuters) - Ernesto plodded across Florida on
Wednesday, soaking a state relieved that the once-menacing
cyclone had fizzled a year after destructive Hurricane Katrina.

With its winds flagging as it limped northward over the
Florida peninsula, the U.S. National Hurricane Center stripped
Ernesto of tropical-storm status and downgraded it to a
tropical depression.

Ernesto, the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season's fifth storm,
could regain some strength when it moves off northeast Florida
into the Atlantic Ocean. Forecasters expected it to curve back
into land along the South Carolina coast on Thursday.

A tropical storm warning was in effect from central Florida
to Cape Lookout, North Carolina, but a hurricane watch for
coastal areas of the Carolinas was lifted as the storm appeared
incapable of regaining the 74 mph (119 kph) winds needed for
hurricane status.

At 5 p.m. (2100 GMT), Ernesto's sustained winds were about
35 mph (56 kph), the hurricane center said. The center of the
system was still over Florida, about 55 miles south-southwest
of Cape Canaveral.

"Ernesto has the potential to regain tropical storm
strength on Thursday over the Atlantic," the hurricane center

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley activated 150 National
Guard soldiers and said two rescue helicopters were standing by
in case of flooding. Neighboring South Carolina activated 240
National Guard troops on Tuesday.

"One of the greatest dangers will be flooded roads," Easley
said. "Do not drive in flood waters. Most deaths from flooding
occur in automobiles."


There appeared to be little cleanup needed in Florida.
Tourists were allowed to return to the Florida Keys on
Wednesday and state parks were reopened.

Florida Power & Light, the state's largest electric
company, said it had 7,500 customers without power and had
restored service to 10,000 others. Schools across the region
were set to reopen on Thursday.

It was a far cry from encounters with hurricanes Wilma and
Katrina last year. Wilma knocked out power to more than 90
percent of south Florida residents in October and caused $12
billion in damage.

Katrina caused more than $500 million in insured losses in
Florida before slamming into the Gulf coast on August 29, where
it killed about 1,500 people, swamped New Orleans and caused
$80 billion in damage.

Ernesto's weakened state as it hit Florida was a puzzle to
forecasters, who had predicted it could become a hurricane over
the warm waters of the Florida Straits after bashing Cuba.

Despite sophisticated computers, storm-tracking aircraft,
satellites and radar, forecasting the intensity of tropical
storms and hurricanes lags 10 or 15 years behind forecasting a
storm's future track, National Hurricane Center director Max
Mayfield said.

"The intensity forecast is almost like putting a
million-piece jigsaw puzzle together and some of those pieces
to the puzzle don't have any color on them and some of those
pieces are missing," he said. "It's very, very difficult."

Before hitting Cuba and Florida, Ernesto lashed Haiti,
where officials blamed it for two deaths.