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Flooding Main Concern After Ernesto's Departure

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Losing power as it slogs north through Virginia, Tropical Despression Ernesto left its marks on North Carolina in flooded roads, downed trees and power outages. At least one death has been blamed on the storm.

Gov. Mike Easley urged residents to continue to be alert Friday as Ernesto left the state and rain-swollen rivers in the east start to crest.

"North Carolina was prepared, and it appears that the state has been spared any large-scale damage," Easley said. "Flooding is causing some roads to be closed and presents the greatest danger as people venture out after the storm. People who live in low-lying areas and near rivers in eastern North Carolina need to continue to be vigilant even though the storm has passed."

The Northeast Cape Fear River near Chinquapin in Duplin County and possibly further south into Pender County is expected to crest early Sunday at 17.6 feet, more than four feet above flood stage, he said. All other rivers in eastern North Carolina are expected to have only minor flooding or to stay within their banks.

Easley also cautioned those who may be traveling to the eastern part of the state, where 150 roads were left flooded by the storm.

The Highway Patrol had to shut down eastbound Interstate 40 between mile marker 374 and mile marker 385 in Duplin County briefly after a creek flooded the road. There were also reports of cars hydroplaning on Interstate 95.

A portion of eastbound U.S. Highway 70 west of Goldsboro near the U.S. Highway 117 Bypass was shut down because of a sinkhole. The dam on a nearby famr pond failed, and the rushing water washed out part of the roadbed, creating the sinkhole, authorities said.

U.S. 70 is a major route for weekend travelers from the Triangle heading to North Carolina's beaches. Local traffic is being detoured onto westbound U.S. 70. As an alternate route, motorists are advised to take U.S. Highway 264 East to U.S. Highway 117 South in Wilson to U.S. 70 East in Goldsboro.

"It really puts a stress on the traffic level that we're going to expect, and secondly, you know, of course, handling that type of traffic with this kind of repair, under this busy Highway 70, it does put a lot of stress on everyone involved," said Jimmy Marler, a maintenance engineer with the state Department of Transportation.

Warren Lee, emergency management director of New Hanover County, said Wrightsville Beach received 14.6 inches of rainfall. He also said numerous roads are impassable due to flooding. Pender County officials said 80 percent of the county's roads were flooded early Friday.

Easley issued a state of emergency declaration to lay the groundwork for any requests of federal assistance. Localized states of emergency were also declared in Beaufort, Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus, Craven, Jones, New Hanover, Onslow and Wake counties.

Approximately 300 people sought shelter last night as Ernesto passed through the state. But all 18 shelters that opened in 13 counties Thursday had closed by Friday afternoon.

Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine declared a state of emergency early Friday, putting the Virginia National Guard and state agencies on alert. In Pennsylvania, officials worried about the storm reaching a dam north of Pittsburgh that was damaged by recent heavy rain there.

Forecasters said they expect the storm to dissipate and merge with a weaker system in the next 24 to 36 hours.

Power Outages, Traffic Problems

Ernesto was blamed for at least three fatalities in North Carolina.

According to the state Highway Patrol, a car sideswiped another vehicle on Interstate 95 north in Nash County. The car then hit a guardrail and overturned. The investigating trooper said the accident was the result of apparent high speed and a wet road.

Authorities have not identified the victim.

Another early-morning wreck claimed the life of a Fuquay-Varina teen.

Candace McKinley Klohr, 18, was westbound on Pierce Road in Johnston County when she lost control on a curve, according to the Highway Patrol. Her car hit an embankment and flipped over. Carl Lane Jr., 20, a passenger in the car, was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment.

In Cary, Bobby Ferick's ride home early Friday morning turned scary. He flipped his Dodge Daytona on the Cary Parkway. Police said wet roads from Ernesto are to blame.

"I was coming off U.S. 1, trying to get up to speed and just hydroplaned right off. All I saw was bushes in front of me," he said.

Troopers from Raleigh to the coast responded to 272 collisions between 11 p.m. Thursday and 1 p.m. Friday, authorities said.

At the height of the storm, Progress Energy reported more than 43,000 customers without power across the state, most in the eastern counties. Officials said Wake County and surrounding counties have about 7,000 customers without power.

By 4 p.m. Friday, fewer than 20,000 customers statewide remained without power. Duke Power and area co-operatives reported scattered outages totalingh a few hundred customers.

Ernesto left its mark on one Raleigh neighborhood. Around 6 a.m., a tree went through the roof of a home on Owenston Court.

"We just heard a boom. I didn't see the tree on the house until the sun came up," said neighbor Deborah Bowen.

Cary officials reported Friday that Ernesto's gusty winds have knocked down a handful of trees, which led to spotty power outages in the town overnight. Downed trees and power lines also were reported in Johnston County.

Flood warnings and watches were issued across mostly rural eastern North Carolina, and a tornado watch extended across central-eastern counties and along the Outer Banks.

Ernesto's sustained winds reached 70 mph, just 4 mph below hurricane strength, as it made landfall at Long Beach, just west of Cape Fear, at 11:30 p.m. Thursday. It dumped more than 8 inches of rain on the Wilmington area -- a record for Aug. 31, according to the National Weather Service.

Ernesto briefly reached hurricane strength Sunday. But lost much of its punch crossing mountainous eastern Cuba and was a tropical storm by the time it made landfall in Florida on Tuesday night, then slowed to a tropical depression as it moved over land.

It was upgraded again late Wednesday as it moved over the warm waters of the Atlantic, but was expected to weaken again as it rode across North Carolina.

Tom Matheson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington, said the storm's frequent intensity changes were surprising.

"But when you're dealing with tropical cyclones, very little is unusual," he said. "It's very difficult to forecast and even to measure one of these systems over the ocean. In the world of meteorology, it's just one surprise after another."

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