Ernesto Weakens to Tropical Depression, Drenches Mid-Atlantic

Downgraded to a tropical depression, Ernesto still dumped up to a foot of wind-whipped rain in parts of Virginia, knocking out power to more than 300,000 customers Friday and forcing several hundred people out of their homes.

The system was blamed for at least two traffic deaths in Virginia and one in North Carolina, where it had made landfall just before midnight Thursday on the heels of thunderstorms that already had drenched the region.

Check the National Hurricane Center's forecast to monitor Tropical Storm Ernesto

A Gloucester couple were killed after a massive tree crushed their modular home, authorities said.

As the storm slowly moved north, flash flood watches were posted for wide sections of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and central New York state as families began taking to the road for the long Labor Day weekend.

"Nobody is relaxing until long after the storm has passed," Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said at a news conference. He had declared a state of emergency on Thursday, before the storm entered Virginia, putting the Virginia National Guard and state agencies on alert.

On Richmond's north side, rising water forced city officials to order the evacuation of about 240 homes near Battery Park and open an emergency shelter at the Arthur Ashe sports complex.

Nina Johnson, 49, arrived at the shelter Friday morning with several family members, including a week-old boy and two 3-month-old twins, after water reached the steps of her apartment.

"We didn't have a chance to get anything except the babies," Johnson said. "They'll give us Pampers and milk here."

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The shelter could accommodate 150 people for three days, said Josephine Myers, shelter disaster coordinator for Richmond's social services department; 19 adults and 11 children were there Friday afternoon.

About 220 units at two apartment complexes in Newport News were voluntarily evacuated because of flooding and 18 people left a third complex there, and about 50 homes in Northumberland County, on Chesapeake Bay, were evacuated.

Newport News did not open any shelters but the city was assisting 90 people who had no immediate place to go when they left their apartments, said Sacil Armstrong, a city spokeswoman.

The city's Mary Immaculate Hospital lost all power, including back-up generators, from 12:30 p.m. Friday until about 8:20 p.m., officials said. The outage cut off phone service and forced staff to use manual respirators on patients with breathing problems.

About a dozen people also had to leave their homes in Poquoson, a bay city of 11,000 that is still recovering from Hurricane Isabel three years ago.

"The storm is a little more than any of us originally thought it was going to be, but it could have been a lot worse," Poquoson City Manager Charles W. Burgess Jr. said, adding "... we think by sunrise tomorrow we'll be in good shape."

Virginia officials were expected to assess damage on Saturday, but the initial reaction is that it wasn't as bad as expected.

"We're somewhat lucky that the storm took a track somewhere to the east of what we expected," said Bob Spieldenner, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. "We still had issues in the eastern part of Virginia, but we would have had much more issues if it had maintained its original course."

Still, "Four fatalities is four too many," Spieldenner added.

In Gloucester, a husband and wife were crushed to death when a massive tree fell on their modular home, said Maj. T.P. Doss, a spokesman for the county sheriff's office. The victims were identified as Richard Booth Jr., 60, and Vanessa Booth, 54. Their two young girls were in the home when the tree fell around 12:30 p.m., but escaped unharmed, Doss said. Rescue teams worked for four hours using heavy equipment, such as an excavator, to recover the bodies.

Gloucester County authorities also rescued 15 people from their flooding homes, Doss said. Some went to stay with family members, while the Union Baptist Church in Guinea opened its union hall to others.

Dominion Virginia Power reported about 266,000 customers without power statewide, with 96,000 in southeast Virginia and 81,000 in the Richmond area. Dominion serves some customers in North Carolina, where about 1,400 remained without power as of 11:15 p.m.

Dominion spokesman Richard Zuercher said employees were working through the night to assess the situation so crews can start getting the lights back on.

Ernesto left 8 to 12 inches of rain across much of the eastern part of North Carolina, but relatively little serious damage.

"Overall, the assessment is cautiously optimistic at this point," Gov. Mike Easley said.

In the Carolinas, governors beckoned tourists, assuring them their states are open for business this lucrative Labor Day holiday weee.

"It was tense," the 23-year-old college student said of the drive. "I was very impressed that my car made it as far as it did."

Flood warnings and watches were issued across the state, and schools, universities and some city offices were closed in the southeast region, where military bases required only essential personnel to report to work as base officials handled power outages, flooded streets, disabled vehicles and downed trees.

At least one highway ramp and several lanes on other interstates in the southeast were closed because of flooding and downed trees. Some smaller roads also were closed because of washouts, flooding and trees. Because of high winds, tractor-trailers and recreational vehicles were barred from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, and several ferries operating on eastern Virginia rivers were closed because of high water and winds.

One spot in Roanoke County received more than 6 inches of rain, and the weather service canceled flood warnings for rivers in the western part of the state on Friday.

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