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Ernesto lands in North Carolina with heavy rain, heads north still at tropical storm strength

Weakening Tropical Storm Ernesto poured torrential rain across North Carolina and Virginia on Friday, flooding highways, forcing evacuations and knocking out power to thousands of homes and businesses.

The system made landfall just before midnight on the heels of thunderstorms that already had drenched North Carolina.

On the 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. High water and fallen trees also slowed travel in Virginia.

Ernesto’s rain was expected to push North Carolina’s Tar and Neuse rivers over their banks in several eastern towns, state spokeswoman Patty McQuillan said early Friday.

However, no major flooding was reported by midmorning.

“We were afraid that the flooding could have been a lot worse,” said Sylvia Jones, whose Wilmington neighborhood was flooded 2 feet deep long before Ernesto even made landfall. “It was pleasantly surprising to look outside this morning and see that the water had subsided.”

North Carolina, already waterlogged by thunderstorms earlier in the week, 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. Three to 6 inches of rain was forecast for the eastern part of West Virginia.

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.

The governors of North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia each declared a state of emergency because of the storm.

“The forecast has improved somewhat, though we’re not out of the woods yet,” said Laura Ramburg, a spokeswoman for West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who declared the state of emergency for 13 counties on Friday.

On its track northward from Florida, the storm stayed offshore of South Carolina, but its outer bands still produced torrential rain that inundated Charleston streets. The worst flooding there was Thursday afternoon as the storm passed at sea around high tide.

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.

“Most of them are in bed asleep,” he said. “So we’re telling them the water’s rising, c’mon, let’s go while they can still get their cars out.”

Nearly 300 people were in the state’s 18 shelters Friday morning.

Nearly 80,000 customers were blacked out Friday morning in the eastern half of North Carolina, according to utility companies.

“As storms go, it could have been worse,” said spokeswoman Jane Pritchard of the North Carolina Electric Membership Corporation.

In Virginia, Dominion Virginia Power reported more than 149,600 customers without power statewide, mostly in the state’s southeast corner.

Schools throughout southeastern Virginia were closed Friday. Virginia Beach police encouraged residents of the coastal resort city to stay home from work Friday, or at least delay their morning commute by a couple hours, because many roads were flooded.

Many eastern North Carolina school districts and some businesses were opening late Friday, along with the Marine Corps bases at Camp Lejeune and Air Station New River, on the coast near Jacksonville. The Coast Guard had closed the ports at Wilmington and Morehead City.

Ernesto’s top sustained wind 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.

The storm weakened as it moved inland but still had 50 mph sustained wind at 8 a.m., well above the 39 mph threshold for a tropical storm.

At 8 a.m. Ernesto’s center was inland, just east of Rocky Mount and about 100 miles southwest of Norfolk, Va., moving north at nearly 15 mph. at 8 a.m. It was expected to continue its northward track and slow down, weakening to a tropical depression by Friday.

Even in a state that has seen widespread drought this summer, many in North Carolina feared the rain might be too much of a good thing. A separate storm system had already dropped as much as 8 inches of rain on parts of central and eastern North Carolina on Wednesday.

Sean Gainer was driving down a street in Wilmington when his car suddenly stalled in two feet of water. By the time he and others pushed it to safety, the water in the road had receded.

“I’ve driven in hurricanes and I’ve seen worse than this. That kind of luck just happens,” he said.

On the Net:

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