WILMINGTON, N.C. – As Tropical Storm Ophelia churned nearly stationary off of the coast of the Carolinas on Monday, forecasters warned that it would make a move toward the shore eventually.
On Monday morning, the storm was more than 200 miles from land, with sustained winds of over 70 mph, but it was piling up heavy surf that pounded the beaches. Its winds eased slightly, prompting the National Hurricane Center to downgrade it to a tropical storm.
A tropical storm warning was issued Sunday night from Cape Lookout, N.C., to the South Santee River in South Carolina, and a hurricane watch remained in effect from Cape Lookout to Edisto Beach, S.C., a stretch of more than 250 miles.
Warning of the possibility of coastal flooding, North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley (search) sent 200 National Guard soldiers to staging centers in the eastern part of the state and ordered a mandatory evacuation of tourists visiting fragile Ocracoke Island (search) on the Outer Banks, reachable only by ferry. Residents of the island were allowed to stay.
Near Wilmington at Wrightsville Beach, lifeguards with megaphones ordered swimmers out of the water.
"They are saying they don't want anyone to even touch the water," Kathy Carroll, 37, of Wilmington, said after abandoning an attempt to body surf in the waves. "Now I know how a flounder feels. I was getting tossed all over the place."
Some people stocked up on groceries during the weekend even though Wilmington, on the coast of southeast North Carolina, had breezy, partly cloudy weather, said Warren Lee, emergency management director for New Hanover County.
There were no long lines at Roberts Grocery in Wrightsville Beach, where customers were buying chips and beer — not bottled water and batteries.
"Usually they are buying all the bread and milk," said store manager Teresa Hines. "Some of the regulars have told me they have their hammers and nails ready just in case."
With a history of several destructive storms, the county has a well-rehearsed disaster plan. But Katrina, a powerful Category 4 hurricane when it devastated Mississippi and Louisiana, was on residents' minds even though Ophelia was only Category 1 and had been waxing and waning in strength.
"If it was a Category 4 barreling down here, I would get out if I had a chance," Lee said. "The structures just can't take that kind of wind. We're cautiously watching [Ophelia]. We're not giving up until it's north of us."
"You never know what is going to happen," Rose Davane, 41, said while strolling on a Wrightsville Beach pier with her daughter and 18-month-old granddaughter. She said Hurricane Fran in 1996 took everything from her family. "I'm always prepared."
At 8 a.m. EDT, Ophelia was centered 215 miles east-southeast of Charleston, S.C., and 275 miles south-southwest of Cape Hatteras, the hurricane center said. The storm was nearly stationary but a very slow turn toward the northwest was expected later Monday, forecasters said.
The latest forecast track indicated the eye could come ashore southeast of Cape Lookout near Wilmington and cross Pamlico Sound on the central coast, said meteorologist Gil Wagi at the National Weather Service office in Newport.
A front approaching from the west could push the storm away from the coast but the likelihood of that was uncertain, he said.
"It's basically a timing thing," Wagi said.
The storm was also forecast to possibly re-emerge out over the Atlantic following a Carolinas landfall, and forecasters urged coastal residents along the Mid-Atlantic and New England coastlines to keep an eye on the storm.
Regardless of its strength, Ophelia merits respect, said Larry Jenkins, a worker at the Sportsman's Pier in Atlantic Beach (search).
"With what's happened down there [on the Gulf Coast] and what's happened in Florida last year and this year ... I think people are much more aware of the dangers and I don't think you'll see people taking it as lightly as they possibly would have otherwise," Jenkins said.
Few fishermen came to the pier Sunday as 6- to 8-foot swells rolled ashore early in the day with wind gusting to 25 mph, Jenkins said. The swells seemed slightly weaker by midday but the owners of hundreds of pleasure and commercial boats docked in Atlantic Beach and nearby central coast towns had started securing their craft.
Ophelia is the seventh hurricane in this year's busy Atlantic hurricane season, which began June 1 and ends Nov. 30. Peak storm activity typically occurs from the end of August through mid-September.
FOXNews.com's Alexander B. Duncan and the Associated Press contributed to this report.