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Ophelia weakens off North Carolina

Tropical storm heads out to sea

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ATLANTIC BEACH, North Carolina (CNN) -- After dumping more than a foot of rain in some places, Ophelia weakened off the North Carolina coast Thursday evening, again losing its hurricane status.

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 again four times.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said in their 8 p.m. ET advisory that Ophelia had top sustained winds of 70 mph and was moving to the east at 5 mph.

Further weakening was possible over the next 24 hours, the advisory said.

The hurricane center put Ophelia's eye about 45 miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, but said that because of weak steering currents, the storm's movement might become erratic. (Watch Ophelia take out part of an ocean pier -- 1:22)

As much as 18 inches of rain has fallen between Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina, and north of Wilmington some areas had 10 inches of rain.

"It is slow, it's going the speed of a fast runner," Dwight Burrus told Reuters from his store in Hatteras. "It's taking forever to get by us."

Gov. Mike Easley said highway closures in the storm area are fluid. "You have to keep in mind that as it recedes and comes back in, which highways are closed is going to change," he said.

Sandy Sanderson, director of emergency management for Dare County, which includes the largest part of the Outer Banks, said Hatteras Island -- now getting the brunt of the front edge of the storm -- could have serious flooding on its inland side.

Sanderson said Ophelia will affect the area far differently from 2003's Hurricane Isabel, which swamped the Outer Banks, cutting the barrier islands off from the mainland for days.

"I don't expect anything like that," he said. "I expect some water on the road, some sand on the road, and we can pretty much get that off quickly."

"Mother Nature plays strange tricks in strange ways, but the Outer Banks has been spared a direct hit," Sanderson said.

The storm was expected to drop an additional 2 inches of rain over portions of eastern North Carolina.

Easley said at least 80,000 homes and business in North Carolina were without power, not counting Hatteras Island, Ocracoke Island, Buxton and Frisco, which had an undetermined number of customers without power.

Its future may hold a landfall farther north. Of 15 computer models, five show the storm hitting the New England coast, and 10 suggest it will head toward Newfoundland.

"One way or another there are going to be pounding waves on the northeast coast," said CNN meteorologist Chad Myers.

A tropical storm warning was in effect from Cape Lookout, North Carolina, to Cape Charles Light, Virginia, including Chesapeake Bay south of New Point Comfort.

A tropical storm warning means such conditions are expected within the next 24 hours.

A tropical storm watch was issued at 5 p.m. for southeastern Massachusetts from Woods Hole to Cape Cod and Plymouth. The watch area includes Martha's Vineyard and the Nantucket islands.

A tropical storm watch means that such conditions are possible within the next 36 hours.

CNN's Susan Candiotti and Rob Marciano contributed to this report.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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