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Weakened Ernesto Still Packs A Punch

Ernesto weakened to a tropical depression Friday, but the storm still packed enough punch to dump more than half a foot of rain, knock out power to more than 300,000 customers and force hundreds of people from their homes.

And it was far from finished. On the eve of the Labor Day weekend, the storm prompted flash flood watches for wide sections of Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and central New York.

"Nobody is relaxing until long after the storm has passed," Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said.

At least one person died when a massive tree crushed a modular home in Gloucester, Va. Gloucester Sheriff's Maj. Mike Nicely told the Daily Press of Newport News that rescuers found one body trapped under the tree and feared another resident was dead inside.

The storm was blamed for at least two traffic deaths in Virginia and one in North Carolina, where it swirled ashore late Thursday, a day after severe thunderstorms had already drenched the region.

More than 200 homes were evacuated in Richmond and about a dozen people had to leave their homes in coastal Poquoson, which is still recovering from Hurricane Isabel three years ago. About 50 homes on Chesapeake Bay's Northumberland County were also evacuated, Kaine said.

People also were ordered to evacuate a few hundred homes in three low-lying Maryland communities — Cornfield Harbor, Breton Beach, and St. George's Island — and people in 17 other communities were encouraged to evacuate, said St. Mary's County spokeswoman Jennifer Fabbricante.

North Carolina got the heaviest initial rainfall, with 8 to 12 inches across much of the eastern part of the state. Parts of western Virginia got 6 inches by midmorning, and rain in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., measured nearly 7 inches.

The weather was bad enough that the Breeder's Cup, scheduled for Saturday in Delaware, was postponed for a week.

In Beaufort County, near the North Carolina coast, about 1,500 families were under a mandatory evacuation order, and police went door to door early Friday in an area with poor drainage, said George Sullivan, director of the county Emergency Management Office.

To the southwest in rural Duplin County, about 90 people in the towns of Chinquapin and Wallace were rescued from flooded homes. Mailboxes and street signs poked out of about 4 feet of lakelike water along one road.

In the community of North East, 21 people were evacuated from a retirement home, according to Fire Chief Walter Scott.

"We put a helicopter in there, looked at the water, saw what it was doing" and decided to evacuate Friday night rather than waiting until daylight, he said.

The Northeast Cape Fear River at Chinquapin rose about 7 feet over 12 hours to stand just a few inches below its flood stage of 13 feet by mid-afternoon Friday, and Tom Matheson of the National Weather Service in Wilmington said there was more to come.

More than 300,000 customers were without power from North Carolina to New Jersey, with the majority of the outages in Virginia.

The governors of North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, and the mayor of the District of Columbia, each declared a state of emergency because of the storm. Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich said Friday he decided against a state of emergency because his state has been so dry.

Also Friday, a team of hurricane forecasters in Colorado lowered their expectations for the 2006 Atlantic season, predicting only five hurricanes instead of the seven previously forecast.

Ernesto's wind reached 70 mph, just 4 mph below hurricane strength, as it passed over land at Long Beach, N.C., just west of Cape Fear. Its sustained wind speed had dropped to 35 mph by midday Friday.

In South Florida, where Ernesto came ashore earlier in the week, several counties prepared to seek reimbursement from the federal government for millions of dollars spent in anticipation of storm damage that never happened.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said that without a federally declared disaster, there was no option for counties to be reimbursed for preparation costs. The only declared state of emergency in Florida was made by Gov. Jeb Bush.

At midday, Ernesto was centered about 80 miles west-southwest of Norfolk, Va., and moving north at nearly 14 mph. It was expected to continue north into Pennsylvania and slow down.

At the Virginia Beach oceanfront, winds knocked down tents and portable toilets that had been set up for a music festival this weekend, and all Friday shows at the American Music Festival were canceled.

Winds gusted at about 60 mph in Hampton, Newport News and Poquoson, the weather service said. Tractor-trailers and recreational vehicles were barred from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, and several ferries on eastern Virginia rivers closed.

On Richmond's north side, officials ordered residents of more than 200 homes in the Battery Park area to evacuate because the area flooded earlier this week.

The weather service canceled flood warnings for rivers in the western part of the state, but the James River was likely to flood in the east.

Meanwhile, remnants of Hurricane John were expected to affect Southern California early next week, the National Weather Service said.

The hurricane's winds reached Mexico's Cabo San Lucas on the southern tip of Baja California on Friday.