WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, N.C. – Hurricane Charley (search) weakened to a tropical storm after it blew into North Carolina on Saturday, but it still threatened floods and tornadoes in a state still cleaning up after a tropical storm.
The storm had killed at least 15 people as it crossed Florida, then skipped the Georgia coast and returned to land at McClellanville, S.C.
Charley's loosely defined center arrived in North Carolina near the small town of Supply with maximum sustained wind of 75 mph, and gusts to more than 80, down considerably from the 145 mph wind that ravaged Florida's west coast on Friday, said National Weather Service (search) meteorologist Ron Humble.
"You can hear trees cracking outside," said Malcolm Caison, who abandoned his mobile home — and his car, flattened by a tree — to take shelter in his parents' brick house in Supply.
By 2 p.m., Charley was downgraded to a tropical storm with sustained wind speed down to 69 mph, the National Hurricane Center (search) said. It was centered about 35 miles north of Wilmington, N.C., and was moving toward the north-northeast at about 30 mph.
That speed and course would take it into Virginia late Saturday, Humble said.
The storm had already brought heavy rain and wind to North Carolina, where three people were killed Friday by a tornado spawned by the remnants of Tropical Storm Bonnie and the approaching Charley.
Forecasters said floods and more tornadoes were possible.
Gov. Mike Easley (search) had declared a state of emergency Friday as the storm was ravaging Florida, and National Guard troops were sent to Charlotte, Raleigh, Kinston and Lumberton to help with any rescues and cleanup.
North Carolina authorities ordered a mandatory evacuation in vulnerable areas of Brunswick County and on Ocracoke Island, which is accessible only by ferries. The island was battered less than two weeks ago by Hurricane Alex.
Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner declared a state of emergency Saturday and said state police, the highway department and the National Guard all had extra staff on standby.
The main threat in Virginia was the potential for heavy rain, the National Weather Service said. Highway crews were prepared to close the Midtown Tunnel, connecting Norfolk and Portsmouth, in the event of flooding; Hurricane Isabel filled the tunnel with nearly 44 million gallons of water last September, closing it for nearly a month.
The storm had earlier run ashore with 85 mph wind in South Carolina's Grand Strand resort area, which had been nearly emptied of 180,000 tourists and residents. McClellanville, a small town that bore the brunt of powerful Hurricane Hugo 15 years ago, had street flooding and broken tree limbs Saturday.
About 65,000 South Carolina customers lost power, including 32,000 in the Charleston area, utility officials said.
The main roads out of South Carolina's Grand Strand were clear Saturday morning, very different from about eight hours earlier when bumper-to-bumper traffic stretched for about 60 miles as people evacuated from Charley's path.
Kari Sorrels and her family had little traffic problems as they evacuated North Myrtle Beach late Friday.
"We're very impressed with how they had the roads set up. They got us out of there quickly," said Sorrels, who was leaving with her husband and 10-month-old son Daniel.