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Ophelia Meanders Toward Carolinas

Hurricane Ophelia edged toward North Carolina early Wednesday, but many in the storm's path shrugged at the threat of flooding rain and wind even as officials urged them to evacuate.

The National Hurricane Center upgraded the storm's status from a tropical storm to a Category 1 hurricane Tuesday, saying maximum sustained winds had reached 75 mph, with higher gusts. Further strengthening was possible.

Regular folks say bring it on, get it over with, but CBS News Correspondent Cynthia Bowers reports that officials can only pray their preparations were enough. No one anticipates high drama, but officials worry with such a slow-moving storm, appearances can be deceiving.

Unlike Hurricane Katrina, which made a head-on charge at the Gulf Coast two weeks ago, Ophelia has meandered since forming off the Florida coast last week. That makes landfall predictions difficult — and makes it harder for some to take the storm seriously.

"We're just having a grand time," said Diane Komorowski, a tourist from Philadelphia, as she walked through the choppy surf on the Outer Banks with her husband.

"They keep saying, 'It's coming,' — yet every day, it's great here," she said.

Some doubted that Ophelia could pack the same punch as Katrina.

"If it was that bad, we would leave," said Charlene Heroux, 46, a 30-year resident of Manteo.

At 5 a.m. EDT, Ophelia was centered about 70 miles south of Wilmington and about 125 miles east-northeast of Charleston, S.C., and was moving north at 5 mph. The storm's effects were already being felt as heavy rains fell on the coast near the border of the Carolinas.

A hurricane warning extended about 275 miles from the South Santee River in South Carolina to Oregon Inlet at Pamlico Sound in North Carolina, meaning hurricane conditions were expected within 24 hours.

The storm was moving slowly, so heavy rain could linger over land and cause serious flooding. The hurricane center said up to 15 inches of rain was possible in eastern North Carolina.


Early Wednesday, a bridge in Wilmington's New Hanover County was closed because of wind with gusts in the mid-40s. County spokesman David Paynter said the latest forecasts suggested that hurricane-force winds will only scrape the county's coast because the center of the storm would pass 30 to 40 miles offshore.

Outside Wilmington, on the barrier island of Wrightsville Beach, Dennis Uncapher opened the Scotchman convenience store he manages early Wednesday morning. The windows were boarded up, but the lights were still on.

"The company told me to keep the store open as long as I could because the people are going to need supplies," he said.

State and local officials, determined not to be caught off-guard after Katrina, blanketed the coast with a mix of voluntary and mandatory evacuations, closing schools and opening shelters. Nearly 100 people had checked into a shelter in an elementary school near downtown Wilmington on Tuesday night.

Bruce McIlvaine of Logan Township, N.J., was among those who cleared out Tuesday, packing to leave Hatteras Island before his vacation ended.

"I don't really want to mess with it," he said. "You're on a spit of land a dozen miles into the ocean."

Along the exposed Outer Banks, all residents and visitors were ordered to evacuate Hatteras Island on Tuesday, visitors had been ordered off Ocracoke Island and the National Park Service closed the Cape Hatteras lighthouse and the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills.

Schools were closed in several coastal counties in the Carolinas, while classes were canceled at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and East Carolina University in Greenville, S.C.

A surfer was missing along the South Carolina coast, with the search suspended because of rough seas.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley said coastal residents should be prepared to go without power for two to three days.

"The beaches we expect to take a real beating," Easley said. "The bottom line is we're definitely going to get flooding, not just on the coast but in low-lying areas as the rivers swell from the storm surge itself."

Still, many people were taking a wait-and-see approach.

"We're levelheaded — we got common sense," said Nancy McKenzie, 57. She was shopping at a Nags Head candy shop that sold plastic bags filled with saltwater taffy and fudge for $4, with the label "Hurricane Ophelia official survival kit."

Ophelia is the 15th named storm and seventh hurricane in this year's busy Atlantic hurricane season, which began June 1 and ends Nov. 30.

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