Hurricane Ophelia still looms off US coast

Hurricane Ophelia drifted toward the North Carolina coast on Sunday and prompted the mandatory evacuation of the most vulnerable island of the state's Outer Banks.

The center of Ophelia, the first hurricane to threaten the United States since Katrina devastated the Louisiana-Mississippi coast two weeks ago, was about 290 miles (464 km) south of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina at 11 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT Monday).

The hurricane was drifting west-southwest and was expected to turn west-northwest on Monday, with the center on or near the North Carolina coast on Wednesday.

Ophelia had top sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph), down from 85 mph (136 kph) earlier Sunday, but could grow stronger in the next few days, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley declared a state of emergency and put 200 National Guardsmen on stand-by for deployment, reports Reuters.

According to Guardian, with a history of several destructive storms, the county has a well-rehearsed disaster plan. But Katrina, a powerful Category Four hurricane when it devastated Mississippi and Louisiana, was on residents' minds even though Ophelia was only Category One and had been waxing and waning in strength.

“If it was a Category Four barreling down here, I would get out if I had a chance,” Lee said. “The structures just can't take that kind of wind. We're cautiously watching (Ophelia). We're not giving up until its north of us.”

Once the storm starts moving, the latest forecast track indicated the eye could come ashore southeast of Cape Lookout near Wilmington and cross Pamlico Sound on the central coast, said meteorologist Gil Wagi at the National Weather Service office in Newport.

A front approaching from the west could push the storm away from the coast but the likelihood of that was uncertain, he said.

“It's basically a timing thing,” Wagi said.

Regardless of its strength, Ophelia merits respect, said Larry Jenkins, a worker at the Sportsman's Pier in Atlantic Beach.

Photo: by NOAA

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