Slow-moving hurricane Ophelia soaks North Carolina

Hurricane Ophelia lingered over North Carolina's Outer Banks barrier islands with sustained winds as high as 85 miles (137 kilometers) per hour, dumping rain and causing storm-surge flooding.

Ophelia was centered 45 miles southwest of Cape Hatteras at 7 a.m. local time, and was "not in a hurry to move away from the Outer Banks," the National Hurricane Center said on its Web site. The hurricane was moving northeast at 6 mph and is forecast to weaken later today. The wall of Ophelia's eye edged along the barrier islands, with the center expected to pass a ``very short distance'' offshore, forecasters said.

“It may not ever make landfall,” meteorologist Eric Blake said in a telephone interview from the center in Miami. A storm is deemed to have made landfall when the eye passes over land, reports Bloomberg.

On Hatteras Island, which was expected to bear the worst of the storm, emergency officials stockpiled enough water and military rations to last 3,000 people for three days. The National Guard was standing by with all-terrain vehicles and four-wheel-drive ambulances. The National Forest Service had 10 chain-saw teams ready to remove fallen trees.

Gov. Mike Easley (D) urged residents of low-lying coastal areas to evacuate. "We're asking them and begging them to please do that because it's going to be hard to get them out later," he said. "The storm surge is going to be higher than projected" Tuesday.

But despite a "mandatory" evacuation order which state officials acknowledged was not really mandatory at all many residents stayed behind on Hatteras and neighboring islands along the Outer Banks. They parked dozens of cars, pickup trucks and a fire engine on the lawn of the Cape Hatteras Baptist Church in Frisco, not because it is the holiest ground in town, but because it is the highest.

They piled sandbags, stowed boats, bought groceries. And while emergency officials took no chances, some locals did.

"Gosh, that was great. Best way to stretch out your back," said Jim Bagwell, 52, after a 10-minute swim in the pounding, six-foot ocean surf at the Frisco Fishing Pier, just hours before the eye of the hurricane was forecast to come through. In last year's Hurricane Alex, the 200-foot pier itself was carried away, informs Washington Posy.

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