Thousands of people fled homes as Ophelia regains hurricane strength off US coast

Thousands of people leave their homes in North Carolina's barrier islands on Tuesday as tropical Storm Ophelia strengthened into a hurricane again and wobbled toward the southeast U.S. coast.

Ophelia's center was 110 miles (175 km) south of Wilmington, North Carolina. The storm was creeping north-northwest and was expected to turn north and hit the North Carolina coast on Wednesday night and Thursday, the forecasters said.

Evacuees streamed off the barrier islands, heading inland before the buffeting winds forced authorities to close some of the high-rise bridges to the mainland.

Ophelia had sat off the North and South Carolina coast for four days, alternately strengthening into a hurricane and weakening back to a tropical storm.

At 8 p.m. (0000 GMT), it had sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph), just over the 74 mph (119 kph) threshold to become a hurricane again, forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center said, reports Reuters.

According to Bloomberg, Ophelia follows less than two weeks after Hurricane Katrina swept ashore Aug. 29, devastating the Gulf of Mexico coast in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and flooding New Orleans. The government approved $62.3 billion in relief for the areas, making Katrina the most expensive disaster in U.S. history.

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford said in an interview last night on MSNBC that 280 National Guard troops were stationed along the coast in preparation for Ophelia.

A hurricane warning, meaning hurricane conditions are expected within 24 hours, was in effect from South Santee River in South Carolina to Oregon Inlet. A hurricane watch, which means conditions are possible within 36 hours, was extended north to the Virginia border.

North Carolina ordered mandatory evacuations in low-lying, flood-prone areas of six coastal counties and voluntary evacuations in parts of others. The University of North Carolina Wilmington and East Carolina University in Greenville canceled classes for tomorrow, CNN reported on its Web site.

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