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Fluctuating Ernesto, now a tropical storm, expected to deliver heavy rain to Carolinas

Coastal residents in the Carolinas braced Thursday for a stronger Ernesto but still worried more about the soaking rains than the winds from the newly upgraded tropical storm.

For experienced storm survivors who have long weathered hurricanes in this vulnerable region, Ernesto and its 50 mph winds seemed no more than a wet weather system. The storm packed some much-needed rain for the parched mid-Atlantic. But it also threatened to bring some localized flooding.

“We need some rain around here — just not all at once,” said Jean Evans, a convenience store worker along North Carolina’s Holden Beach, part of the lengthy strip of coastline under the National Weather Center’s tropical storm warning.

Ernesto — downgraded to a tropical depression over Florida, then upgraded as it moved over the warm waters of the Atlantic — was forecast to make landfall again late Thursday along South Carolina’s coast, likely near Georgetown. From there, it was to ride into central North Carolina.

Forecasters said Ernesto would pick up some moisture as it moves over the Gulfstream and residents in the mid-Atlantic states could expect the weakened storm to dump 2-4 inches of rain.

Both Florida and North Carolina have a long history with tropical systems sweeping along the Atlantic coast. The Carolinas have encountered 10 hurricanes over the past decade, second only to Florida — which has seen 11 during that span.

Still, hundreds of National Guard troops were on alert, and officials in the Carolinas warned residents to be ready for anything.

“We know we’re going to get a lot of rain, we know this is going to be a water event,” North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley said.

The storm’s fluctuating strength was less a concern to emergency officials than the prospect of downpours over an area hit by floods during Alberto, the season’s first named storm in June.

In North Carolina, Ernesto was expected to follow a separate storm system that prompted a severe thunderstorm watch across much of the state Wednesday.

“We’re taking it very seriously,” said Cathy Plaut, a Wake Forest resident visiting Oak Island for a family vacation to close out the summer. “But things don’t look too bad. If that changes, we can always head out of here.”

At 5 a.m. Thursday, Ernesto was located about 195 miles south of Charleston, S.C. It was expected to move ashore along the northern South Carolina coast near Georgetown late Thursday or Thursday night.

From there, it was forecast to move into the coastal plains of eastern North Carolina on Thursday night.

Ernesto has about 18 hours over water to intensify, but forecasters said its chances of reaching hurricane strength were unlikely. After making landfall somewhere in the Carolinas, Ernesto is expected to quickly weaken.

A tropical storm warning remained in effect early Thursday from Flagler Beach, Fla., to Cape Lookout, N.C.

No evacuations were ordered in the Carolinas, though both states’ governors urged residents to keep abreast of forecasts.

In North Carolina, Easley activated 150 National Guard troops and the State Emergency Response Team to prepare for possible flooding and power outages. Guard troops in South Carolina were released from active duty Wednesday but remain on standby status, Lt. Col. Pete Brooks said.

On James Island, one of a string of barrier islands on the South Carolina coast, Gerald Galbreath made two trips Wednesday to collect 24 sand bags from the fire department.

“I don’t want any water coming in and doing any damage,” he said. “It’s just precautionary.”

“All of James Island and (nearby) Folly Beach is in a flood zone,” said Capt. Brian Pucel of the fire department. “So even in just a good storm, a summer storm, we have flooding on the whole island.”

Forecasters said a storm surge of 3 feet to 5 feet was possible in the Carolinas, with the highest surge coming Thursday night or Friday morning around the time of high tide.

In North Carolina, forecasters said as much as 8 inches of rain was possible from Ernesto. The storm’s track looked like it would affect areas from Winston-Salem, in the north-central part of the state, to the coast.

Both Carolinas have struggled this summer with on-again, off-again drought. While the storms could fill depleted reservoirs, back-to-back heavy downpours raised the prospect of runoff and flooding.

Ernesto lost much of its punch crossing eastern Cuba and made landfall late Tuesday on Plantation Key, Fla., with 45 mph wind, far from the 74 mph threshold for a hurricane that Ernesto briefly met Sunday.

On the Net:

National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/