WILMINGTON, N.C. – Forecasters issued a hurricane watch for the North and South Carolina coasts Thursday, and Virginia's governor declared a state of emergency as Tropical Storm Ernesto gained strength over the Atlantic.
The watch, stretching from South Carolina's Santee River to Cape Lookout in North Carolina, means hurricane conditions, with sustained winds of at least 74 mph, are possible within 12 hours.
For residents who have long weathered hurricanes in this vulnerable region, Ernesto's wind was less of a concern than the threat of flooding. Thunderstorms have been drenching North Carolina for more than a day, and Ernesto could bring half a foot of rain.
"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 had been downgraded to a tropical depression over Florida, but gained strength and was upgraded as it moved over the warm waters of the Atlantic.
By Thursday morning, it's outer bands had reached the South Carolina coast, and its sustained wind was near 60 mph shortly before noon. The storm was forecast to make landfall late Thursday along South Carolina's coast, likely near Georgetown, then head for central North Carolina.
In Virginia, Gov. Timothy Kaine declared a state of emergency, preparing the Virginia National Guard and state agencies to take all reasonable actions to protect residents. In Pennsylvania, officials worried about the storm reaching a dam north of Pittsburgh that was damaged by recent heavy rain there.
The Mid-Atlantic region has struggled this summer with on-again, off-again drought. But the runoff from back-to-back heavy downpours, while refilling reservoirs, could also damaging flooding.
Central North Carolina has had anywhere from 3 to 8 inches of rain in the past day, National Weather Service meteorologist Deborah Moneypenny said. Duke Energy, which serves central and western North Carolina and parts of South Carolina, reported 4,900 customers without power at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, well before Ernesto arrived.
Ernesto was expected bring another 4 to 8 inches of rain to the Mid-Atlantic states, with up to 12 inches in some areas.
"We're taking it very seriously," said Cathy Plaut, a Wake Forest resident visiting Oak Island for a family vacation. "But things don't look too bad. If that changes, we can always head out of here."
Hundreds of National Guard troops were on alert, and officials in the Carolinas warned residents to prepare 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.
At 11 a.m. Thursday, Ernesto was centered about 105 miles south-southeast of Charleston, S.C., and about 225 miles south-southwest of Wilmington, N.C. It was moving north-northeast at about 17 mph.
Ernesto's 60 mph sustained wind at 11 a.m. was up 20 mph from early Thursday.
The storm was expected to move ashore along the northern South Carolina coast Thursday afternoon or night and expected to quickly weaken after making landfall, but a larger area will be affected because tropical storm-force winds stretched out up to 85 miles from its center.
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."
The National Hurricane Center, which issued the hurricane warning, warned of a storm surge of 3 feet to 5 feet in the Carolinas, with the highest surge coming Thursday night or Friday morning around the time of high tide.
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.