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Ophelia hammers North Carolina coast

Satellite image shows Hurricane Ophelia on the Carolina coastline at 8:45 p.m. ET Wednesday.



National Weather Service

ATLANTIC BEACH, North Carolina (CNN) -- Hurricane Ophelia pounded the North Carolina coast Wednesday with high wind, heavy rain and punishing surf as the storm lumbered toward a Thursday morning landfall.

"This one is getting worse as we go forward," North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley told CNN.

As of 11 p.m. ET, the Category 1 storm, with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph, was about 20 miles south-southeast of Cape Lookout, the southernmost point of the Outer Banks.

It was moving east-northeast at about 7 mph, meaning rain could soak some areas for more than 36 hours, according to an advisory from the National Hurricane Center.

"The problem with that is it gives more time to create a large storm surge, which we think now will be 9 to 11 feet," Easley said. "It looks like we're going to get somewhere around 12 inches of rainfall."

"We know we're going to see some flooding, and we need people to evacuate if they've been told to do so," he said. "Once this storm comes through, it's going to be a long time before it leaves. If you lose power you probably won't get it back for a day or two."

Mandatory evacuations were ordered for portions of six coastal counties -- Brunswick, Carteret, Dare, Hyde, Onslow and Pender. Voluntary evacuations were also in place for parts of eight counties in the eastern part of the state.

Easley said four staging areas have been set up by the National Guard to evacuate the elderly and other people with special needs from low-lying areas. Sixty-one shelters are open in North Carolina.

"It's no excuse for anybody to stay behind if they don't have to," he said. "We can fix the property later."

A hurricane warning stretches from Surf City, North Carolina, north to the the Virginia border and includes Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds.

A hurricane watch and a tropical storm warning extend north of the North Carolina-Virginia border to Cape Charles Light, Virginia, which includes Chesapeake Bay south of New Point Comfort.

The hurricane center said in its latest advisory that the center of Ophelia was expected to pass a "very short distance offshore" near the Outer Banks during the next 24 hours.

NHC deputy director Ed Rappaport said Ophelia's winds were likely to push a storm surge up rivers, causing heavy inland flooding.

"The storm surge inland will be 6, 7, 8, maybe even 9 feet. It's going to be pushing a lot of water into the sound and up the rivers as well," he told CNN.

Ophelia has been an excruciatingly slow-moving system, looping around several times in the Atlantic Ocean and changing from tropical storm to hurricane and back four times.

"Fortunately, there's been a lot of time to prepare," Rappaport said. "The bad news is that because it's moving so slowly, it prolongs the impact, both because of the winds and the rainfall."

Rappaport said the area could expect around 15 inches of rain, with downed trees and power lines.

More than 51,000 homes and business were without power as of 4 p.m., Progress Energy said in a news release on its Web site.

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

South Carolina was forecast to get 4 to 8 inches of rain from Ophelia, and tropical storm force winds lashed coastal areas of the Palmetto State on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Homeland Security positions aid

The Department of Homeland Security said Wednesday it was placing supplies in strategic locations in case they are needed for Ophelia relief.

Those supplies include hundreds of trailers of water and ice and dozens of trailers of meals in nearby states, according to a news release from the department.

The agency said it activated or deployed three disaster medical assistance teams, six urban search and rescue teams, and other medical personnel from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Coast Guard also was positioning search and rescue squads, pollution response teams and aids to navigation assets in the areas likely to be affected by Ophelia.

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