IMAGE: BEACH HIT BY OPHELIA WAVES
Logan Mock-Bunting  /  Getty Images
Beachgoers walk Sunday on the low side of a berm formed by waves from Hurricane Ophelia at Wrightsville Beach, N.C.
updated 9/12/2005 1:44:07 PM ET 2005-09-12T17:44:07

Hurricane Ophelia was downgraded to a tropical storm again Monday as the indecisive weather system moved slowly off the coast, its outer bands of rain not quite reaching land.

Despite Ophelia’s waxing and waning strength and slow progress, residents’ attention had been focused by the devastation caused elsewhere by Hurricane Katrina.

That was on the mind of Steve King as he grudgingly skipped a football game on television to move his sea kayak out of harm’s way.

“They keep saying this storm is two or three days out,” he said. “I think we’re all waiting for something to happen.”

Ophelia’s sustained wind speed slowed Monday morning to about 70 mph, 4 mph below the threshold for a hurricane, but it had the potential to regain hurricane strength over the next day or so, the National Hurricane Center said.

A tropical storm warning and a hurricane watch were in effect from Cape Lookout south to Edisto Beach, S.C.

Some calls for evacuations
With the storm’s path uncertain, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford called for a voluntary evacuation Monday of oceanfront and riverside areas in his state’s northeastern corner.

“This is a serious storm that’s got the potential to do a lot of damage and put lives in jeopardy if we don’t take it seriously,” Sanford said.

In North Carolina, Gov. Mike Easley on Sunday ordered 200 National Guard soldiers to report to staging centers in the eastern part of the state. The governor also ordered a mandatory evacuation of nonresidents from fragile Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks, reachable only by ferry.

At Wrightsville Beach, lifeguards ordered swimmers out of the surf Sunday.

“They are saying they don’t want anyone to even touch the water,” said Kathy Carroll, 37, of Wilmington. “Now I know how a flounder feels. I was getting tossed all over the place.”

Despite the warnings, there were no long lines at Roberts Grocery in Wrightsville Beach, where customers bought chips and beer — not bottled water and batteries.

“Usually, they are buying all the bread and milk,” said store manager Teresa Hines. “Some of the regulars have told me they have their hammers and nails ready just in case.”

With a history of destructive storms, New Hanover County has a well-rehearsed disaster plan. But Katrina, which was a powerful Category 4 hurricane before it made landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi, was on residents’ minds even though Ophelia was only Category 1 and had been waxing and waning in strength.

“If it was a Category 4 barreling down here, I would get out if I had a chance,” Lee said. “The structures just can’t take that kind of wind. We’re cautiously watching (Ophelia). We’re not giving up until it’s north of us.”

Northwest turn
At 11 a.m. ET, Ophelia was centered 205 miles east-southeast of Charleston, S.C., and 260 miles south-southwest of Cape Hatteras, the hurricane center said. The storm was creeping toward the northwest at about 2 mph, forecasters said.

Ophelia has been following a wandering course since it became a tropical storm Wednesday off the coast of Florida.

It is the 15th named storm and seventh hurricane in this year’s busy Atlantic hurricane season, which began June 1 and ends Nov. 30. Peak storm activity typically occurs from the end of August through mid-September.

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