North Carolina coast haunted by Ophelia

Hurricane Ophelia battered coastal North Carolina with heavy rains and gusting winds in an assault that was expected to trigger dangerous flooding.

Ophelia was the first hurricane to hit the United States since the much more powerful Katrina killed hundreds in the U.S. Gulf Coast and displaced 1 million people two weeks ago.

Ophelia's center was 20 miles south-southeast of Cape Lookout, North Carolina, at 11 p.m. It was expected to hit Cape Lookout early on Thursday then move near the Outer Banks, the chain of islands along the state's northern coast.

The storm's strongest winds hammered the state's south and central coast on Wednesday. Schools, seaports, ferries and businesses were closed and 1,700 people went into shelters along the North Carolina coast. More than 123,000 customers had lost electricity.

Squalls strafed the coastline and kicked up battering waves that gnawed at beaches and washed over roads as Ophelia crept along, parallel to the coast at about 7 mph (11 kph).

The storm ripped off roofs near Morehead City on the state's central coast and washed away part of a fishing pier on Atlantic Beach.

A 19-year-old woman was killed when the car she was riding in slid off the highway in heavy rain and crashed into trees east of Raleigh, a Highway Patrol trooper said.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley warned that the longer Ophelia was over the state, the more rain would fall and the more seawater would pile up and crash ashore as storm surge.

Forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center said Ophelia could dump up to 15 inches of rain on parts of North Carolina and send an 11-foot (3-meter) storm surge over the coast and up into the rivers.

Mandatory evacuation was ordered for islands, beach towns and flood-prone areas in six coastal North Carolina counties and voluntary evacuation was urged for parts of nine others.

A hurricane warning was in effect for most of the North Carolina coast, alerting residents to expect hurricane conditions within 24 hours. More than 700,000 people live in the warning area, the AP reports.

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