Ernesto ebbs to tropical depression but drenches Virginia, Carolinas with heavy rain

Friday, September 1st 2006, 8:51 am
By: News On 6

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) _ Ernesto weakened to a tropical depression as it plowed northward over land Friday, but it still had the punch to lash Virginia with 6 inches of rain, flooding highways, forcing evacuations and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of people.

The system was blamed for at least one traffic death in Virginia and one in North Carolina, where it had made landfall just before midnight on the heels of thunderstorms that already had drenched the region.

``It wasn't any big deal,'' said Dennis Rood of Carolina Beach, N.C., northeast of the landfall point. ``The house shuddered a little bit, but that's about it.''

As the storm headed north, flash flood watches were posted for wide sections of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and central New York state, the National Weather Service said.

By midday, rain was falling across the eastern two-thirds of Virginia, said Bill Sammler, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wakefield. The core of the heavy rain was over the Hampton Roads area in the state's southeast corner.

``We've seen some significant flooding in the streets in the cities in Hampton Roads,'' said Bob Spieldenner, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. No major damage had been reported.

Although the storm's sustained wind speed was down to about 35 mph, below the 39-mph minimum for a tropical storm, gusts to 60 mph were measured in parts of southeastern Virginia.

Because of the wind, tractor-trailer rigs and recreational vehicles were barred from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

North Carolina got the heaviest initial rainfall. The National Weather Service said more than 8 inches fell on the Wilmington area _ a record for the date _ with 6 to 7 inches in Onslow County by 5 a.m. Parts of western Virginia got 6 inches by midmorning, and North Myrtle Beach, S.C., measured nearly 7 inches.

Four to 8 inches of rain was possible in Maryland, the weather service said.

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.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell canceled campaign and official events on Friday and the state police and National Guard were placed on alert.

In Richmond, Va., city officials ordered the evacuation of about 200 homes near Battery Park on the city's north side. The area had been flooded earlier this week during heavy rain that also saturated much of North Carolina.

Dominion Virginia Power reported that about 150,000 customers were blacked out in southeast Virginia and about 39,000 had no electricity in the Richmond area. Nearly 80,000 customers were blacked out Friday morning in the eastern half of North Carolina, according to utility companies.

Many schools in southeastern Virginia and eastern North Carolina were closed Friday or opened late.

High water and fallen trees on streets and highways slowed travel in Virginia.

On North Carolina's low-lying Outer Banks, waves and standing water shut down part of the main road, and a roughly 12-mile section of Interstate 40 on the mainland was closed briefly early Friday by flooding, the state Department of Transportation said.

In Beaufort County, N.C., near the coast on Pamlico Sound, about 1,500 families were under a mandatory evacuation order, and police went door to door early Friday in an area where the drainage is poor, said George Sullivan, director of the county Emergency Management Office.

On its track northward from Florida, the storm stayed offshore of South Carolina, but its outer bands still inundated Charleston streets. The sky cleared Friday morning at North Myrtle Beach, S.C., and tourists returned to the shore, with families strolling along calm surf.

Ernesto's top sustained wind reached 70 mph, just 4 mph below hurricane strength, as it made landfall at Long Beach, N.C., just west of Cape Fear, at 11:30 p.m. Thursday. Its sustained wind speed had dropped to 35 mph by 11 a.m. Friday.

At 11 a.m. Ernesto's center was inland, about 80 miles west-southwest of Norfolk, Va., and moving north at nearly 14 mph. It was expected to continue its northward track into Pennsylvania and slow down.

Meanwhile, hurricane forecaster William Gray's team downgraded its expectations for the 2006 Atlantic season Friday, predicting a slightly below-average season, with only five hurricanes instead of the seven previously forecast. Two of the hurricanes will be intense, according the team, based at Colorado State University.

It was the second time they had downgraded their forecast in a month. Last spring, Gray's team said 17 named storms could form in the Atlantic basin during the June-through-November hurricane season.