ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Residents in parts of coastal North Carolina and Virginia experienced flooding Saturday after Tropical Storm Ophelia made landfall near a barrier island in North Carolina, bringing rain, damaging winds and dangerous flooding .
The storm came ashore near Emerald Isle with near-hurricane-force winds of 70 miles per hour (113 km/h), but the winds weakened as it moved north and the center of the storm reached Virginia in the evening, said the US National Hurricane Center. Ophelia is expected to sweep northeast along the Mid-Atlantic coast into New Jersey on Sunday.
At 7:44 p.m. EDT, the Center said that Ophelia had slowed and developed into a tropical depression, which is a weak form of a tropical storm, and that all storm surge and tropical storm warnings had been canceled.
Still, social media videos showed that riverfront communities in North Carolina such as New Bern, Belhaven and Washington experienced significant flooding. The extent of the damage was not initially clear.
Winds eased and the system was expected to trend northeast through Sunday. “Further weakening is expected and Ophelia will likely become a post-tropical cyclone tomorrow,” the hurricane center said in a statement Saturday evening.
Even before it reached land, Ophelia proved so treacherous that five people had to be rescued by the Coast Guard from a boat anchored near the coast of North Carolina on Friday evening.
Ophelia promises a weekend of windy conditions and heavy rain as the storm churns up the East Coast and moves north at speeds of around 12 mph (19 km/h) starting Saturday evening. Parts of North Carolina and Virginia can expect up to 5 inches (13 centimeters) of rain, while the rest of the Mid-Atlantic region is forecast to see 1 to 3 inches (3 to 8 centimeters) through Sunday. Some coastal communities in New Jersey, including Sea Isle City, had already experienced flooding on Saturday.
Philippe Papin, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, said the main risk from the storm system over the next few days will be the threat of flooding from the rain.
“Tropical storm-force winds have been observed, but these are beginning to gradually weaken as the system moves further inland,” Papin said in an interview early Saturday. “However, there is a significant risk of flooding over the next 12 to 24 hours for much of eastern North Carolina into southern Virginia.”
Power outages spread to more states outside North Carolina, where tens of thousands of homes and businesses remained without power in several eastern counties Saturday afternoon, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks utility reports. A map from Duke Energy showed scattered power outages across much of eastern North Carolina as winds knocked down tree branches and blocked power lines.
“If there is a slow-moving storm with several inches of rain and a gust of 30 to 40 miles per hour, that’s enough to bring down a tree or branches,” Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said WTVD-TV on Saturday. “And we saw that in most areas where there were outages.”
Brian Haines, a spokesman for the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management, said there were also reports of downed trees but no major road closures.
“North Carolina Emergency Management continues to monitor the situation and work with our county partners, who are not reporting a need for resources at this time,” Haines said Saturday morning.
Five people, including three children aged 10 or younger, required Coast Guard assistance on the water as conditions deteriorated on Friday. They were aboard a 40-foot catamaran anchored in Lookout Bight in Cape Lookout, North Carolina, which was stuck in choppy waters in high winds.
According to the Coast Guard, the sailboat’s owner called them on a cell phone, triggering a nighttime rescue mission in which the crew used flares to navigate to the five people in a Coast Guard boat, then helped them aboard and abandoned the sailboat. A Coast Guard helicopter illuminated the path back to the station. No injuries were reported.
At the southern tip of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Carl Cannon Jr. said he hopes to salvage part of this weekend’s long-running pirate invasion of Beaufort, a multi-day event centered around the Spanish attack on the city in 1747. He said that three ships fight each other and attack the coast and “Blackbeard” is even beheaded (although the real pirate was actually killed decades before the Spanish attack).
But the storm’s winds tore down the large tent for a banquet planned for Saturday and several other tents were damaged or torn. Cannon Jr. fears the financial impact will be significant, even as people help clean up and offer online fundraisers.
“It was pretty devastating,” said Cannon Jr., CEO of the nonprofit that runs the event. “I just hope we can somehow recover.”
Cannon Jr. also hopes the wet and windy conditions will allow the Pirates performers to converge on Beaufort on Sunday.
“If I can get the boats there, we will attack and the people will fight on the shore,” he said.
Elsewhere the impact was more modest.
Aaron Montgomery, 38, said when it began to rain heavily Saturday, he noticed a leak in the roof of the home his family had just moved into in Williamsburg, Virginia. Still, they were able to safely make the hour-long drive to Virginia Beach for his wife’s birthday, where, he said, the surf and wind were strong but the rain had stopped.
“No leak in a roof is insignificant, so we will definitely have to take care of it on Monday morning,” he said.
The governors of North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland each declared states of emergency on Friday.
It’s not unusual for one or two tropical storms or even hurricanes to develop just off the East Coast each year, said Michael Brennan, director of the National Hurricane Center.
“We are in the middle of the peak of hurricane season. “Basically, storms can form anywhere in the Atlantic basin,” Brennan said in an interview Friday.
A study simulated tropical cyclone Traces from pre-industrial times, modern times and a future with higher emissions. It found that hurricanes would move closer to the coasts, including around Boston, New York and Virginia, and would be more likely to form along the southeast coast.
Mattise reported from Nashville, Tennessee. AP radio reporter Jackie Quinn in Washington and AP writers Ron Todt in Philadelphia, Sudhin Thanawala in Atlanta and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed.