U.S. getting ready as Tropical Storm Ophelia strengthens into hurricane again

A hurricane watch was posted Saturday for the southeastern U.S. coast as Ophelia strengthened into a hurricane once again and meteorologists said its meandering course could take a sharp turn toward land.

A hurricane watch was posted along a 300-mile (500-kilometer) stretch from the Georgia-South Carolina state line to North Carolina's Cape Lookout, meaning hurricane-force wind of at least 74 mph (119 kph) was possible by Sunday evening, the National Hurricane Center said.

The areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina last week were not in the storm's path.

South Carolina state emergency officials said a decision would be made later Saturday whether any evacuations would be ordered, but Charleston County announced it would open shelters Saturday evening for voluntary evacuees from low-lying areas and barrier islands.

"We don't think it's a done deal yet," said Joe Farmer, a spokesman for the South Carolina Emergency Management Division. "It's moving really slow so we have to hang with it. But there is some expectation it will move toward the coast."

Emergency management directors along the North Carolina coast said they were prepared for Ophelia and warned residents not to be complacent.

The crew of an Air Force hurricane hunter airplane flying through Ophelia measured top sustained wind of 80 mph (129 kph). It could strengthen a bit before an expected Monday landfall, said Eric Blake, a meteorologist at the hurricane center in Miami.

"Almost every (computer) model indicates a United States landfall," he said. "It's time to make those preparations."

At 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) Saturday, Ophelia was centered about 225 miles (360 kilometers) east-southeast of Charleston, South Carolina, and about 255 miles (410 kilometers) south-southwest of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. It was drifting northeast at about 3 mph (5 kph), but was expected to head to the northwest, toward the coast, on Sunday.

Ophelia was already contributing to rough surf along the coast.

"There are large swells from Ophelia and residual swells from (Tropical Storm) Nate and from the northeast winds we've had over the past few days. You can imagine how confused the seas are," said meteorologist Steve Pfaff at the National Weather Service in Wilmington, North Carolina. He said a buoy at Frying Pan Shoals, 35 miles (55 kilometers) off Cape Fear, was reporting 12-foot (3Ѕ-meter) waves.

Nate and another tropical storm, Maria, posed no threat to land as they weakened over the cooler water of the north Atlantic.

If Ophelia makes landfall in South Carolina it would the third hurricane in 13 months to strike the state. Hurricanes Charlie and Gaston hit the South Carolina coast last season in the same general area.

Ophelia is the seventh hurricane in this year's busy Atlantic hurricane season, which began June 1 and ends Nov. 30. Peak storm activity typically occurs from the end of August through mid-September, AP reported.

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