Hurricane Ophelia lashed the North Carolina coast with high winds and heavy rains, beginning an anticipated two-day assault that threatened serious flooding and a 3.3m storm surge.
"If you have not heeded the warning before, let me be clear right now: Ophelia is a dangerous storm," Governor Mike Easley said from Raleigh, appealing especially to those in flood-prone areas to evacuate.
Ophelia was moving so slowly -- just 11 kph on Wednesday night -- that authorities expected the storm's passage through North Carolina to take 48 hours from the start of rainfall on the southeastern coast on Tuesday afternoon to the storm's anticipated exit into the Atlantic late yesterday.
The storm had sustained winds of 137 kph, the National Hurricane Center said. Hurricane warnings covered the entire North Carolina coast from the South Carolina line to Virginia, where a tropical storm warning covered the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.
More than 30.5cm of rain had fallen on Oak Island at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, said meteorologist Jeff Orrock with the National Weather Service in Raleigh.
More than 120,000 homes and business were without power in eastern North Carolina, electric utilities said.
On Ocean Isle Beach, south of Carolina Beach, a 15m section of beachfront road was washed out by heavy surf and the only bridge to the island was closed.
Video broadcast by Durham's WTVD-TV from Carteret County on the central coast showed a section from the end of a hotel's fishing pier breaking off and floating away.
Jetnella Gibbs and her family made their way to a shelter at a Craven County high school after the rain started on Tuesday.
"We noticed the street was starting to fill up, and I said, `It's time to go,"' she said. "I know if this little bit here has flooded the street, what will it do when it really pours?"
The storm's eye was expected to brush the coast between midnight and 2am, but it might not come ashore, said Bob Frederick, meteorologist at the weather service bureau at Newport, North Carolina.
At 11pm on Wednesday, Ophelia's center was about 32km south-southeast of Cape Lookout and moving northeast at about 11kph toward Cape Hatteras, about 137km away.
Water that was pushed out of Bogue Sound washed into garages and ground floors while ocean surf chewed away the end of a hotel's pier on Bogue Banks, a barrier island.
Following the criticism of its response to Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had 250 workers on the ground -- a larger-than-usual contingent given Ophelia's size. FEMA also put a military officer, Coast Guard Rear Admiral Brian Peterman, in place to command any federal response the storm might require.
The storm's slow, meandering path to the coast gave FEMA more time to get staff on the ground than is usually the case with North Carolina hurricanes, said Shelley Boone, the agency's team leader for Ophelia.
President George W. Bush issued an emergency declaration for 37 counties in eastern North Carolina, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to coordinate disaster relief efforts.
Easley said he had spoken to Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff and that National Guard teams were prepared to evacuate sick, frail and elderly residents.
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