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Tropical Storm Ana Strengthens as it Nears Carolinas, Southeast

Ana strengthened into a tropical storm as it moved slowly towards the Carolinas, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said Saturday.

Beachgoers were warned away, emergency officials kept a watchful eye and at least one graduation ceremony was forced indoors as Tropical Storm Ana neared the Carolinas in an early heaping of rough weather weeks ahead of the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season.

Ana was centered about 20 miles southeast of North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, as of 2 a.m. Sunday, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. The storm's maximum sustained winds weakened to 50 mph as it approached the coast at about 5 mph, the hurricane center said.

Wind gusts nearing 60 mph were felt in Southport, North Carolina, on the coast north of Myrtle Beach, Saturday evening as the storm approached, the National Weather Service reported.

Universities along the Carolina coastline were monitoring the storm as a possible disruption to weekend commencements. Ceremonies scheduled for Brooks Stadium Saturday at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina, were moved indoors out of caution.

In Wilmington, North Carolina, UNC Wilmington held graduation indoors, as planned, but urged students and family to watch weather conditions and make their own determination whether it's safe to travel.

The North Myrtle Beach Department of Public Safety announced Saturday that no swimming in the ocean was allowed because of the weather. In New Hanover County, North Carolina, officials cautioned people who were thinking about coming to the beach over the weekend.

"Beachgoers are encouraged to use extreme caution this weekend," said Warren Lee, Director of New Hanover County Emergency Management. "With the elevated risk of rip currents, the best advice is to stay out of the water when the risk for rip currents is the highest and comply with any advisories given by lifeguards."

Stacy Stewart, a hurricane specialist at the hurricane center, said dangerous surf and rip tides appear to be the biggest threat posed by the Atlantic season's first tropical storm though isolated flooding in some coastal areas is also a concern.

The center said a tropical storm warning extends from the southern part of the Santee River in South Carolina to Cape Lookout, North Carolina, with 1 to 3 inches of rain expected over a wide area and up to 5 inches in some isolated spots.

The hurricane center also said the storm could push water 1 to 2 feet above normal height levels, causing some localized flooding.

A tropical storm watch also was in effect for Edisto Beach, South Carolina, up through the southern tip of the Santee River.

— The Associated Press

NBC News' Phil Helsel contributed to this report.