- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — Ophelia kept up its teasing dance along the coast of the Carolinas yesterday, dropping slightly in strength from hurricane to tropical storm as it barely moved toward land.

Although Ophelia was centered more than 200 miles offshore, nonresidents were ordered to leave one of North Carolina’s Outer Banks islands and 300 National Guard troops were sent to mustering points along the coast. School systems in five counties closed, even though the storm’s eye was predicted to remain offshore until tomorrow.

Many people acknowledged they were paying closer attention to Ophelia because of the vast destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast. Others insisted they wouldn’t let the milder storm disrupt their plans.

“My family is all coming in for a family reunion, including my 84-year-old mother,” said Dodie Curtis, 62, of Gilford, Maine, on the shore at Wrightsville Beach. “This is our family thing, and we don’t plan to go anywhere unless it gets a lot worse.”

North Carolina Gov. Michael F. Easley, a Democrat, said the state was doing its normal storm preparation.

“We have, unfortunately, a great deal of experience with hurricanes. I think one of the things people in North Carolina will be able to recognize is that this is the exact same pattern we always follow,” he said.

Ophelia was a minimal hurricane early yesterday with sustained winds of 75 mph, but by midday it had weakened to about 70 mph, 4 mph below the threshold, the National Hurricane Center said.

Meteorologists warned that the system had the potential to regain hurricane strength over the next day or so. A tropical storm warning and a hurricane watch remained in effect from Cape Lookout south to Edisto Beach, S.C.

At 8 p.m., Ophelia was centered about 160 miles east-southeast of Charleston, S.C., and about 260 miles south-southwest of Cape Hatteras, N.C., the hurricane center said. It was moving northwest at about 4 mph with a gradual turn to the north expected during the next 24 hours.

With the storm’s path uncertain, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, called for a voluntary evacuation of oceanfront and riverside areas in his state’s northeastern corner. He was joined by officials in North Carolina’s adjacent Brunswick County.

The storm’s slow movement is its primary danger, bringing the likelihood that it will hang over eastern North Carolina for days, Mr. Easley said.

Floods, prolonged power outages and severe wind damage were possible as Ophelia crawled north from Wilmington to the Pamlico Sound, he said.

Mr. Easley ordered the National Guard to eastern North Carolina on Sunday, accompanied by swift-water and urban search-and-rescue teams, as well as seven helicopters.

He also ordered a mandatory evacuation of visitors from fragile Ocracoke Island, which is reachable only by ferry.

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