August 31, 2006

Ernesto hits Carolina coast

By Gene Cherry

RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Ernesto
hit North Carolina near hurricane strength on Thursday, dumping
heavy rain on both Carolina states and forecasters warned it
could trigger life-threatening floods and tornadoes.

The center of Ernesto made landfall at Long Beach,
sustaining winds of around 70 miles per hour (113 km per hour),
just short of the 74 mph (119 kph) needed for hurricane status,
the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

On Wednesday it sloshed through Florida after briefly
becoming the Atlantic storm season's first hurricane near

Rainfall of up to 10 inches already was causing problem on
some on North Carolina highways, said the National Weather
Service in Wilmington. Residents remember catastrophic flooding
caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

"The biggest impact would be flash flooding," North
Carolina Gov. Mike Easley said at a news conference.

Easley and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford both activated
National Guard troops to deal with Ernesto. North Carolina
deployed rescue teams to central and eastern parts of the state
and had rescue helicopters on stand-by.

Along North Carolina's Outer Banks, storm-savvy residents
seemed unconcerned.

"Everybody is just taking it in stride," said Ann Warren,
owner of Howard's Pub on Ocracoke Island. "Calm. Not expecting
anything major to happen. ... They're just going about their

State ferry service from Ocracoke to Cedar Island on the
mainland was canceled as a precaution. Campgrounds in the area
were closed.

Flint King, a veterinarian on Oak Island, which appeared in
the storm's direct path, said: "The winds are just starting to
pick up. There are some pretty good little gusts now, but
nothing bad yet."


U.S. Highway 17, a north-south coastal route, was flooded
in southern and central portions of the state along with
several secondary roads, Andrew Sawyer, a state emergency
management spokesman, told Reuters.

The state ports at Wilmington and Morehead City shut on
Thursday afternoon because of the storm, the U.S. Coast Guard

A hurricane watch was in effect from South Santee River in
South Carolina, to Cape Lookout in North Carolina.

Ernesto was moving toward the north-northeast at about 18
mph (29 kph) and would likely decrease in speed and turn toward
the north over the next 24 hours, the hurricane center said at
11 p.m. (0300 GMT).

Forecasters said Ernesto could bring 4 to 8 inches of rain
to areas from northeastern South Carolina to the mid-Atlantic
states, with 12 inches in isolated areas.

Hurricane Floyd, a Category 2 storm with winds near 104 mph
(167 kph), killed 56 people and caused up to $6 billion worth
of damage when it triggered huge floods seven years ago. It
hammered North Carolina's farming industry, killing tens of
thousands of hogs and chickens.

Ernesto had at one point been forecast to reach Florida as
a potential Category 3 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson
scale of hurricane intensity. But it moved ashore as a much
weaker storm and did little damage in the state.

(Additional reporting by Paul Nowell in Charlotte)