Ophelia downgraded to tropical storm but Carolinas stay prepared

A level one Hurricane Ophelia weakened to a tropical storm off the southeastern U.S. coast on Monday as it drifted in fits and starts toward the North Carolina coast.

The storm had barely budged in days and its top sustained winds repeatedly strengthened and weakened just enough to wobble back and forth across the 74 mph (119 kph) threshold that separates a tropical storm from a hurricane.

At 5 p.m. (2100 GMT), it was a tropical storm with 70 mph (112 kph) winds but was expected to strengthen back into a hurricane on Tuesday, forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Ophelia's center was 260 miles (416 km) south-southwest of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The storm was inching northwest and was expected to turn gradually north and move over or near the North Carolina coast on Wednesday or Thursday, the forecasters said.

But the air currents that normally steer tropical cyclones were unusually weak. "Therefore we have the unpleasant possibility that the cyclone could linger near the southeast United States through five days," the forecasters said, reports Reuters.

According to Forbes, the governor of North Carolina, Mike Easley, declared a state of emergency, ordering the mobilization of 200 National Guard troops and the evacuation of coastal islands. The governor warned citizens to brace for a storm that would last for 24 hours or more.

"I urge citizens to take necessary precautions to keep their families safe," Easley said. "This storm is moving slowly which means that we will feel its effects for a longer time."

At 1500 GMT, Ophelia swirled in the Atlantic some 330km (205 miles) east of South Carolina.

"Ophelia is nearly stationary and a very slow northwestward motion is expected today," the hurricane center said. Tropical storm conditions could hit the area by early Tuesday.

Everett Clendenin, spokesman for North Carolina's Crime Control and Public Safety, said on Monday that four 'strike teams' of National Guard, comprising 200 persons, had been readied, backed by four boat teams of rescuers.

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