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Islands Empty, School Close for Ophelia

September 13, 2005

BEAUFORT, N.C. (AP) _ Vulnerable islands were evacuated and mainland schools were closed Tuesday as erratic Tropical Storm Ophelia wobbled closer to land with a threat of flooding rain after taunting coastal residents for days.

A hurricane warning was in effect from Georgetown, S.C., to North Carolina’s Cape Lookout, meaning hurricane conditions were expected within 24 hours, and a tropical storm warning extended north along the Outer Banks from Cape Lookout to Oregon Inlet, the National Hurricane Center said.

Bruce McIlvaine of Logan Township, N.J., packed up to leave Hatteras Island before his vacation ended.

``I don’t really want to mess with it. You’re on a spit of land a dozen miles into the ocean,″ he said.

Unlike Hurricane Katrina’s devastating charge at the Gulf Coast, the week-old Ophelia had been following a meandering path, making predictions of its landfall difficult. The hurricane center’s latest long-range models showed it could run along the coast, then veer through Pamlico Sound, cross the Outer Banks and head back out to sea.

And its maddeningly slow trek likely meant heavy rain could linger over land, possibly causing serious flooding. The hurricane center said up to 15 of rain was possible in parts of eastern North Carolina. Showers had moved into eastern North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina in advance of the storm.

``It will just keep beating and beating and beating,″ Gary Holland said as he helped a friend board up the windows and doors of a small white frame house on Beaufort Bay.

After waxing and waning in strength, the storm had sustained wind of 70 mph around its center and had the potential to become a hurricane again before Wednesday, the hurricane center said.

At least six North Carolina counties had ordered mandatory evacuations of some areas and seven others had voluntary evacuations.

Along the exposed Outer Banks chain, all residents and visitors were ordered to evacuate Hatteras Island on Tuesday, visitors had been ordered off Ocracoke Island and the National Park Service closed the Cape Hatteras lighthouse and the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills.

Schools were closed in several coastal counties in both North and South Carolina.

Hatteras resident Barry Peele, of Buxton, said he would ride out the storm. ``For something as weak as this is, you’re not going to see hardly any locals leave,″ he said.

The Air Force sent some aircraft from bases in Virginia and North Carolina to airfields farther inland and moved others into hangars.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford had called for a voluntary evacuation of oceanfront and riverside areas in the northeastern part of his state. Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner declared a state of emergency. National Guard troops were on duty in parts of North Carolina and Virginia.

A surfer was missing along the South Carolina coast, and the search had been suspended because of the rough sea.

At 2 p.m. EDT, Ophelia was centered about 125 miles south of Wilmington and about 120 miles east-southeast of Charleston, S.C. After sitting nearly stationary over Monday night, it was moving north-northwest at 4 mph. A gradual turn toward the north was expected during the night or on Wednesday, but continued erratic motion was likely, the hurricane center said.

The storm’s likely path across Pamlico Sound and the Outer Banks would mean the biggest flooding threat would come from the sounds, not the Atlantic Ocean, said Jonathan Hobbs, a spokesman for the Dare County Joint Information Center.

Wind can push enough water out of the sounds to make the bottom visible, Hobbs said. ``It was very eerie the first time I saw it,″ he said.

Ophelia became a tropical storm Wednesday off the Florida coast and later strengthened to a hurricane. It is the 15th named storm and seventh hurricane in this year’s busy Atlantic hurricane season, which began June 1 and ends Nov. 30.

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Associated Press writers Jeffrey Collins in Avon, N.C., and Tom Foreman Jr. and Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.

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On the Net:

National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov

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