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Mid-Atlantic Coast under Flood Warnings as Ophelia Weakens to Post-tropical Low and Moves North

September 24, 2023

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Tropical Storm Ophelia was downgraded to a post-tropical low on Saturday night but continued to pose a threat of coastal flooding and flash floods in the mid-Atlantic region, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Residents in parts of coastal North Carolina and Virginia experienced flooding Saturday after the storm made landfall near a North Carolina barrier island, bringing rain, damaging winds and dangerous surges.

At 11 p.m. Saturday, the center said Ophelia, reduced to a weak form of a tropical storm, was located about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south-southwest of Richmond, Virginia, and about 85 miles (135 kilometers) southeast of Charlottesville, Virginia. The storm had maximum sustained winds of 35 mph (55 kph) with higher gusts.

Coastal flood warnings and flood watches remained in effect for portions of the region, the center said.

“The center of Ophelia is expected to turn toward the north-northeast and northeast, moving across eastern Virginia and the Delmarva Peninsula through Sunday,” the center said.

Zach Wright, 12, skimboards in floodwaters from the Lafayette River in the Larchmont Neighborhood of Norfolk, Va., Friday, Sept. 22, 2023, as Tropical Storm Ophelia approaches. (Kendall Warner/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

Areas from Virginia to New Jersey are likely to receive 1 to 3 inches (2.5 to 7.6 centimeters) of rain and up to 5 inches (12.7 centimeters) in some places, the center said. Some New Jersey shore communities, including Sea Isle City, had already experienced flooding Saturday.

Areas of southeastern New York and southern New England also could receive 1 to 3 inches of rain, while surf swells are expected to affect much of the East Coast through the weekend, the center said.

Philippe Papin, a hurricane specialist with the center, said the primary risk of the storm system going forward will be the threat of floods from the rain.

“There have been tropical storm-force winds observed, but those are starting to gradually subside as the system moves further inland,” Papin said in an interview early Saturday. “However, there is a significant flooding rainfall threat for a large portion of eastern North Carolina into southern Virginia over the next 12 to 24 hours.”

The storm came ashore near Emerald Isle, North Carolina, on Saturday morning with near-hurricane-strength winds of 70 mph (113 kph), but winds weakened as the system traveled north, the center said.

A group of beachgoers watch people kiteboarding in the storm surge of Tropical Storm Ophelia on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, in Virginia Beach, Va. (AP Photo/John C. Clark)

Videos from social media showed riverfront communities in North Carolina such as New Bern, Belhaven and Washington experiencing significant flooding. The extent of the damage was not immediately clear.

Even before making landfall, Ophelia proved treacherous enough that five people, including three children 10 or younger, had to be rescued by the Coast Guard on Friday night. They were aboard a 38-foot (12-meter) catamaran anchored in Lookout Bight in Cape Lookout, North Carolina, stuck in choppy water with strong winds.

The sailboat’s owner called the Coast Guard on a cellphone, prompting a nighttime rescue mission in which the crew used flares to navigate to the sailboat, helped the people aboard and left the boat behind. A Coast Guard helicopter lit up the path back to the station. There were no injuries reported.

Tens of thousands of North Carolina homes and businesses remained without electricity across several eastern counties as of Saturday afternoon, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks utility reports. A Duke Energy map showed scattered power outages across much of eastern North Carolina, as winds toppled tree limbs and snagged power lines.

Nicole Torres, a spokeswoman for the Office of Emergency Management for the city of Annapolis, Md., ties a sandbag on Friday, Sept. 22, 2022 as residents prepared for an approaching storm. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

“When you have that slow-moving storm with several inches of rain, coupled with a gust that gets to 30, 40 miles per hour, that’s enough to bring down a tree or to bring down limbs,” Duke Energy spokesperson Jeff Brooks told WTVD-TV on Saturday.

Brian Haines, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management, said there were reports of downed trees but no major road closings.

At the southern tip of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Carl Cannon Jr. said he hoped to salvage some of this weekend’s long-running Beaufort Pirate Invasion, a multiday event centering on the 1747 Spanish attack on the town. The winds tore down the big tent for a banquet planned for Saturday and several other tents were damaged or shredded.

Cannon Jr. hoped soggy, windy conditions would allow pirate reenactors to clash Sunday in Beaufort. “If I can get the boats out there, we will have an attack and the people will fight on the shore,” he said.

The governors of North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland each declared a state of emergency on Friday.

It is not uncommon for one or two tropical storms, or even hurricanes, to develop off the East Coast each year, National Hurricane Center Director Michael Brennan said.

The tops of trees blow sideways at the Virginia Beach, Virginia Oceanfront on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023 as Tropical Storm Ophelia approaches the area. (Kendall Warner/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

“We’re right at the peak of hurricane season. We can basically have storms form anywhere across much of the Atlantic basin,” Brennan said in an interview Friday.

Scientists say climate change could result in hurricanes expanding their reach into mid-latitude regions more often, making storms like this month’s Hurricane Lee more common.

One study simulated tropical cyclone tracks from pre-industrial times, modern times and a future with higher emissions. It found that hurricanes would track closer to the coasts, including around Boston, New York City and Virginia, and be more likely to form along the Southeast coast.

In some areas where the storm struck Saturday, the impact was modest. Aaron Montgomery, 38, said he noticed a leak in the roof of his family’s new home in Williamsburg, Virginia. They were still able to make the hour-long drive for his wife’s birthday to Virginia Beach, where he said the surf and wind were strong but the rain had stopped.

“No leak in a roof is insignificant, so it’s certainly something we have to deal with Monday morning,” he said.

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