Storm-soaked Carolinas under hurricane watch as Ernesto nears; Virginia declares emergency

Forecasters issued a hurricane watch for the Carolina coasts Thursday, and Virginia's governor declared a state of emergency as Tropical Storm Ernesto neared hurricane strength in the Atlantic.

The watch, stretching from South Carolina's Santee River to Cape Lookout in North Carolina, means hurricane conditions, with sustained winds of at least 74 mph (119 kph), were possible within 12 hours.

For residents who have long weathered hurricanes in this vulnerable region, Ernesto's wind was less of a concern than the threat of flooding. Thunderstorms have been drenching North Carolina for more than a day, and Ernesto could bring half a foot of rain.

"We need some rain around here _ just not all at once," said Jean Evans, a convenience store worker along North Carolina's Holden Beach, part of the lengthy strip of coastline under the National Weather Center's tropical storm warning.

Ernesto had been downgraded to a tropical depression over Florida, but it gained strength and was upgraded as it moved over the warm waters of the Atlantic.

By Thursday morning, its outer bands had reached the South Carolina coast, and its sustained winds were nearing hurricane strength at 70 mph (113 kph) by mid-afternoon, according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm was forecast to make landfall late Thursday along the coast near the South Carolina-North Carolina border.

In Virginia, Gov. Timothy Kaine declared a state of emergency, preparing the Virginia National Guard and state agencies to take all reasonable actions to protect residents. In Pennsylvania, officials worried about the storm reaching a dam north of Pittsburgh that was damaged by recent heavy rain there, reports AP.