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Tropical storm Ophelia strengthens as it approaches U.S. East Coast

Tropical Storm Ophelia strengthened as it barreled toward the North Carolina coast on Friday, promising a weekend of heavy rain and wind across the Atlantic.

Ophelia issued a hurricane watch for parts of eastern North Carolina, saying Ophelia showed the potential to gather more strength as it moves over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The storm was expected to make landfall in North Carolina on Saturday morning and dump 17.7 inches across parts of the state and into southeastern Virginia.

According to the US National Hurricane Center, the intensifying weather system became a tropical storm by midday with maximum sustained winds of 95 km/h. A storm surge warning was in effect for some areas, with storm surges of 0.9 to 1.5 meters forecast for parts of North Carolina, the hurricane center said.

The governors of North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland have declared a state of emergency. Some schools closed early as communities prepared for the storm’s arrival, and several events were canceled over the weekend.

“We expect a prolonged period of high winds, heavy rain and high tides,” Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said in an evening statement.

A satellite image shows the storm system near the US.
Ophelia approaches North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia on Friday, according to a satellite image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (NOAA/Reuters)

Nancy Shoemaker and her husband Bob stopped at a water park in downtown Annapolis, Maryland, to pick up sandbags to help protect their waterfront home.

Last year, at the end of October, they experienced a large flow of water that entered their yard and even washed away the sandbags.

“We’re hoping that won’t be the case this time,” Nancy Shoemaker said. “If we have a lot of wind and a big wave, it can look like an ocean, so that’s a problem.”

A storm surge warning was in effect from Beaufort Inlet, NC to Chincoteague, VA, and a tropical storm warning was issued from Cape Fear, NC to Fenwick Island, Del.

Two people smile at the camera as they fill sandbags into the back of a car.
Nancy and Bob Shoemaker, whose home is next to the water, sandbag their car in Annapolis, Md., on Friday in preparation for Ophelia. (Brian Witte/Associated Press)

Ophelia was already affecting water taxis in Annapolis, where driver Scott Bierman said service would close at 6 p.m., when the decision was made to close Saturday.

“We don’t operate when it’s going to endanger passengers and or damage the ships,” Bierman said.

It’s not uncommon for one or two tropical storms or even hurricanes to form just off the East Coast each year, said Michael Brennan, director of the National Hurricane Center.

“We’re in the height of hurricane season, we can basically have hurricanes in most of the Atlantic basin,” Brennan said.

Scientists say climate change could cause hurricanes to extend their reach into mid-latitude regions more often, making storms like this month’s Hurricane Lee more frequent. One study modeled tropical cyclone tracks from pre-industrial times, modern times, and a future with higher emissions. It found that the storms would track coasts, including those around Boston, New York and Virginia, and were more likely to form along the Southeast coast.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper has declared a state of emergency for his state to speed up preparations and help with a quick response.

“The storm’s path was difficult to predict, and we want to ensure farmers, first responders and utility crews have the tools they need to prepare for severe weather,” Cooper said.

An executive order by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin also sought to ease response and recovery efforts.

“We want to ensure that all communities, especially those with the greatest expected impact, have the resources they need to respond and recover from the effects of this storm,” Youngkin said.

The governor called on the residents to prepare an emergency aid package and to carefully follow the weather forecast.

Schools in coastal North Carolina and Virginia announced plans to dismiss students early Friday and cancel after-school and weekend classes.

North Carolina’s ferry system announced it was suspending several routes, and the state’s Emergency Response Team planned to switch to an enhanced watch on Friday to facilitate coordination of resources, the governor’s office said.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Nigel has been downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone, centered about 1,030 km northwest of the Azores, with maximum sustained winds of 110 km/h. There were no coastal watches or warnings as the storm moved northeast at 59 kph, the hurricane center said in its final update on the system Friday morning.

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