Ernesto Could Bring Heavy Rains, Hurt Holiday Tourism

Posted August 28, 2006 10:59 a.m. EDT

— Heavy rains from Tropical Storm Ernesto are possible across both eastern and central North Carolina beginning late Thursday, forecasters said Monday.

Aside from the threat of potential storm damage, 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.

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    "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."

    But the precise path of the storm remained unpredictable Monday as it moved across Cuba.

    "With it still being that far out and the effects going to be affected by what Cuba does to the system, also how much travel over the Florida peninsula versus being over water, those factors will effect what it would do over North Carolina," said Mark Bacon, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington. "It's still too soon to tell."

    Ernesto became the Atlantic season's first hurricane on Sunday morning with maximum sustained winds of about 75 mph before weakening Monday. It apparently was diminished by Haiti's mountainous southwestern peninsula, but was expected to regain strength after traversing Cuba's rough terrain.

    Ernesto could grow into a hurricane again as it crosses the warm waters off Cuba and comes ashore in South Florida.

    "It has some recovering to do and it has some land to travel over," Bacon said.

    Forecasters issued a hurricane watch Monday for the southern peninsula of Florida, and a hurricane watch remained in effect for all of the Florida Keys.

    A National Hurricane Center model at 5 p.m. showed the storm covering the eastern and central portions of North Carolina by Friday, though how intense it might be remained uncertain.

    Storm tracking errors can be large -- averaging 260 miles -- in projecting the path of a storm four days out, the National Hurricane Center said.

    Still, talk of a storm possibly hitting the North Carolina coast could mean a drop in the 150,000 tourists who typically visit the Outer Banks on Labor Day weekend, the traditional marker of the end-of-summer tourist season and the area's third-most popular summer holiday, McCormick said.

    AAA motor club predicts that more than 816,000 North Carolinians will drive at least 50 miles from home this Labor Day weekend. That's up 2.3 percent from last year when the holiday weekend occurred days after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.

    Air travel is expected to drop 1 percent from 2005 likely because of stricter carryon luggage rules, AAA said.

    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."

    During a Monday-morning news conference, Easley recommended that people stock an emergency kit with enough food, fresh water and other supplies to last three to seven days. Families also should prepare an emergency plan so members know where to meet and how to communicate if they're separated, he said.

    The state has raised 3,500 bridges in recent years, and coastal building regulations require all new homes to be at least 14 feet off the ground to protect them from flooding, Easley said. The state has also adopted an improved emergency communications system to speed response efforts if Ernesto hits, he said.

    At Wrightsville Beach Monday, however, not all beachgoers seemed too concern about Ernesto.

    "It's gorgeous out here," one woman said. "We're just enjoying the weather.

    It has been several years since North Carolina has been hit hard by a hurricane. Easley said he worried about such complacency.

    "The state is prepared. We have one of the best emergency management operations in the nation, but nothing works unless we all work together, unless all of our citizens do their part," he said.

    "You don't want to ride one out," he added. "Even if you think you're going to be safe, it's not a fun thing … The best thing to do is get out if a storm is coming."