Waiting for Ophelia: Meandering system downgraded to tropical storm and barely moving

Ophelia kept up its teasing dance along the coast of the Carolinas on Monday, dropping slightly in strength from hurricane to tropical storm as it barely moved toward land.

Although Ophelia was centered more than 200 miles (322 kilometers) 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 Wednesday.

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.

Ophelia was a minimal hurricane early Monday with sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph), but by midday it had weakened to about 70 mph (113 kph), 4 mph (6 kph)below the threshold, the National Hurricane Center said.

Meteorologists warned, though, 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, South Carolina.

At 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT), Ophelia was centered about 165 miles (265 kilometers)east-southeast of Charleston, South Carolina, and 260 miles (418 kilometers) south-southwest of Cape Hatteras, the hurricane center said. It was moving northwest at about 3 mph (5 kph).

With the storm's path uncertain, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford called for a voluntary evacuation Monday 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, Easley said.

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

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. Highway Patrol officers helped with the Ocracoke evacuation Monday.

The Coast Guard closed state ports in Morehead City and Wilmington on Monday.

Ophelia became a tropical storm Wednesday off the Florida coast. 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, AP reported.

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