"We're hoping that we'll get widespread rainfall across the state that will help alleviate some of the drought concerns we're having right now," state Climatologist Ryan Boyles said. "The ground is dry, the streams are low and the reservoirs are down."
While forecasters hoped for a storm that was heavy on rain but light on wind, the National Weather Service issued a hurricane watch Tuesday evening that extended from Cape Fear in southeastern North Carolina to Altamaha Sound, Ga. A watch means that hurricane conditions -- sustained winds greater than 73 mph -- are possible in the area within the next 36 hours.
"The (current) forecast for Ernesto takes the intensity up to 70 miles per hour, which is just shy of hurricane strength," said Ron Steve, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington.
The path predicted Tuesday by the National Hurricane Center showed the storm passing northward through central North Carolina early Friday. But the range of possible paths forecast by the center could take the storm as far east as the Outer Banks and as far west as the Charlotte area.
Ernesto Makes Landfall On Plantation Key
Tropical Storm Ernesto sloshed rather than slammed ashore, surprising forecasters by failing to strengthen Tuesday as it approached Florida and providing relief to hurricane-weary residents.
Briefly a hurricane Sunday, Ernesto lost much of its punch crossing mountainous eastern Cuba. The storm crossed the Florida Straits with top sustained winds of 45 mph before making landfall as a weak tropical storm at 11:30 p.m. on Plantation Key, about 60 miles southwest of Miami, forecasters said.
"Fortunately it didn't get too big," said David Rudduck of the American Red Cross. "It was the little train that couldn't."
That was good news for Florida, the victim of seven hurricanes since 2004.
"Frankly, I am surprised it has not strengthened," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center. "But for all those thousands and thousands of people with blue-tarped roofs, that's good news. ... As a homeowner, I'm very happy. As a forecaster, I'm not very happy."
As the threat of damaging winds abated, rain became the biggest concern, and police distributed thousands of sandbags in the low-lying Miami suburb of Sweetwater. Five to 10 inches of rain was possible, forecasters said.
Accidents on rain-slickened expressways killed at least two people. A Miami woman died after the car in which she was riding hydroplaned and struck a palm tree, and a motorcyclist was killed near Boca Raton after skidding and being struck by two other vehicles.
Still, officials had feared much worse weather. In the Keys, Monroe County emergency management director Irene Toner smiled as she watched steady rain fall.
"This is great," she said. "Compared to what it could have been, we are fortunate."
On Miami Beach, usually vibrant Lincoln Road was quiet, and many businesses closed early. Among those finding food at an Italian restaurant was actor Mickey Rourke with his dog Loki, wearing a pink argyle sweater.
"What storm?" Rourke said. "This is nothing."
The state had been ready to respond with 500 National Guard members and another 500 state law enforcement officers.
"This does not look like a catastrophic event, but we always want to be ready," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in Tallahassee. He attended Katrina anniversary events earlier in the day in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Ernesto Expected To Bring Big Rains, Not Big Winds
"The latest path has it coming up the coast, going into South Carolina and then moving up through central North Carolina," said Robert Ussery, a forecaster in the National Weather Service's Raleigh office. "We're probably just looking at a lot of rain."
Depending on its track and speed, the storm could collide with a cold front and dump several inches of rain statewide, the service said. Flash flooding and isolated tornadoes could be possible.
Three to six inches of rain could fall in central and northern North Carolina, while up to 10 inches was predicted along the Outer Banks and two inches were possible in the mountains.
"We're going to be able to take the water that may or may not come with Ernesto," Boyles said. "The flip side of the coin with these storms is the wind, which can cause a lot of problems, but right now it's looking to be more of a beneficial event rather than a detrimental one."
Ernesto had sustained wind of 45 mph Tuesday afternoon, with higher gusts. The hurricane center said the storm could grow more powerful as it crossed warm water between Cuba and the Florida peninsula.
Although the storm wasn't expected to reach hurricane status, emergency officials in North Carolina warned residents to be prepared for flooding in low-lying and urban areas, especially on roadways.
"People seem to forget that less than a foot of water can float a car," said Renee Hoffman, spokeswoman for the state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. "Do not drive in the flood waters. Period. Turn around."
The timing of the storm is especially important because October and November have traditionally been the state's driest months, Boyles said.
"It's a beautiful time to be in North Carolina but it's a concern for communities that may already be experiencing some drought conditions," he said.
Ernesto's Threat Could Dampen Labor Day Plans
Tourism officials fear just the possibility of a storm hitting on Labor Day weekend will severely hurt their industry for the season's final holiday, especially at the coast.
"Even the threat is damaging," said Carolyn McCormick, managing director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau in Manteo. "If they haven't made their travel plans and they want to go to the beach the next coming days are what's going to be the deciding factor for them."
About 150,000 tourists typically visit the Outer Banks on Labor Day weekend, she said.
But some said most tourists would wait until later in the week to decide whether to cancel their beach plans. Mark Price, a sales broker for Gardner Realty and Management in Carolina Beach, said he had few calls Monday.
"We haven't had anybody cancel yet," he said. "We'll see what happens towards Wednesday."
Local Areas Prepare
While North Carolinians decide how to spend their final summer holiday, Gov. Mike Easley urged all residents Monday to make preparations for the hurricane season. ()
"I am asking everyone to prepare for hurricanes as the busiest time of the season is upon us," Easley said in a statement. "If you have waited to put together your emergency plan and disaster supply kit, you can wait no longer."
The governor's office said a disaster supply kit should include at last a three-day supply of bottled water, nonperishable food, first aid supplies, prescription medicines, a battery-operated radio, copies of insurance papers and extra cash.
Area communities are also ramping up their emergency preparations.
For example, crews in Cary were clearing debris from culverts and storm drains on Tuesday to limit the potential for flooding and were securing lightweight objects in parks so they don't blow away.
Meanwhile, Orange County Emergency Management held a conference call with county, municipal and non-government organizations that assist during and after emergencies to coordinate their efforts.
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