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Ophelia becomes a hurricane -- again

Residents warned to prepare as outer bands lash Carolina coast

Satellite image shows Ophelia as it swirls off the coast of the Carolinas at 12:15 p.m. ET Tuesday.



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National Weather Service

(CNN) -- North Carolina's governor urged residents of low-lying areas and coastal islands to head for safety Tuesday as Hurricane Ophelia methodically churned toward the state's southeastern corner with heavy rains and strong winds.

The fickle, slow-moving storm reached hurricane intensity again Tuesday evening after reconnaissance aircraft measured 75 mph winds, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.

The storm's outer bands were lashing the coast between Charleston and Wilmington Tuesday evening.

During the past week, Ophelia has wobbled four times between hurricane and tropical storm status as it moved erratically up the East Coast, making three loops along the way.

At 8 p.m., the center of Ophelia was 105 miles east of Charleston, South Carolina, and 110 miles south of Wilmington, North Carolina. The storm was moving north-northwest at 3 mph.

Wilmington, the largest city on the North Carolina coast, is expected to start feeling hurricane force winds of at least 74 mph early Wednesday.

The University of North Carolina Wilmington and East Carolina University in Greenville canceled classes for Wednesday.

Ophelia's strongest winds were relatively far from the center -- 50 to 60 miles -- and will reach the coast well ahead of the center of the storm, according to the hurricane center.

The hurricane's center is forecast to make landfall later Wednesday afternoon north of Wilmington before turning slightly east and moving across the lower Outer Banks, though the storm has been difficult to predict.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley warned residents along the coast to prepare for a storm that could cause several days of widespread flooding, blocked roads and power outages.

"If you live in low-lying areas, flood-prone areas -- you know where they are -- you need to get out," Easley said.

Easley said the slow movement of the storm means that Ophelia's winds and rain could last 36 to 48 hours, a prolonged assault that could threaten buildings and give the state's beaches "a heavy beating."

Six to 10 inches of rain were forecast, with up to 15 inches in isolated areas. Compounding the danger, the storm is expected to make landfall at high tide, which forecasters said could bring a storm surge of 8 to 10 feet at the heads of bays and rivers.

"We're definitely going to get flooding; not just on the coast, but low-lying areas as rivers surge," he said.

Easley asked residents in vulnerable areas to stock up on enough non-perishable food, water and ice to last three days. He predicted emergency workers would not be able to begin to clean up before Friday.

He urged residents not to drive after the storm until advised to do so by local officials, saying most storm deaths result from ill-advised motorists.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered for portions of six counties, with voluntary evacuations in place for parts of eight counties.

At least 30 shelters were open, and 350 National Guard troops were activated, Easley said, along with 250 staffers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The governor predicted that North Carolinians "will respond a lot better than you see in other states."

"People in North Carolina are more used to these type storms," he said. "If you heed the warning and don't put yourself in peril, it makes everybody's work easier."

'Slow-motion' storm

Douglas Hoell Jr., head of the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management, told CNN that dealing with the unpredictable storm is "kind of like responding to a hurricane in slow motion."

A hurricane warning -- meaning hurricane conditions are expected within 24 hours -- is in effect from the South Santee River in South Carolina to Oregon Inlet.

A hurricane watch, which means that conditions are possible within 36 hours, has been extended north to the Virginia border.

A hurricane watch remains in effect in South Carolina from north of Edisto Beach to the South Santee River.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner declared a state of emergency Tuesday, directing the public and state agencies to prepare for the storm. Easley declared an emergency Sunday.

Hoell said North Carolina made no changes to the way it responds to hurricanes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but the images of that storm's devastation make Ophelia's prospects "a real challenge for everybody."

"Citizens should be encouraged to pay heed," he said. "When local government says to evacuate, they should not take that lightly."

On Ocracoke, a barrier island off North Carolina, nonresidents were ordered Saturday to evacuate by Hyde County emergency management officials, said Ken DeBarth, owner of Lightkeepers Guest House.

The island's residents, who number about 300, can remain, though they should be mindful that stronger winds could force the ferry operators to cancel services, officials said.

"It is necessary to move from areas that are prone to flood, but some people make bad decisions," Hoell said, adding that Ophelia's slow movement would make it "a long-duration problem."

In South Carolina, Gov. Mark Sanford called for voluntary evacuations in parts of three counties, including barrier islands and low-lying areas. At least four shelters have been opened in those counties.

Rough season

If Ophelia were to hit the United States at hurricane strength, it would be the third hurricane to strike U.S. soil this year, with three months remaining in the Atlantic hurricane season.

More than a week into September -- historically the most active month for tropical activity -- the 2005 hurricane season has seen 15 named storms.

Seven of them reached hurricane strength, with winds of at least 74 mph, and four of those were considered major, with sustained winds of at least 111 mph.

According to the hurricane center, the historical averages for a hurricane season are 10 total named storms, including six hurricanes. Two of those hurricanes are major hurricanes in an average year.

The largest number of named storms recorded was 21 in 1933, a record that will be broken if seven more storms develop in the next 12 weeks.

The largest number of hurricanes recorded in the Atlantic was 12 back in 1969, and the largest number of major hurricanes in the Atlantic was eight in 1950, the hurricane center said.

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