NEW BERN, N.C. - Hurricane Ophelia stalled Thursday just off North Carolina's Outer Banks, prolonging the wind and rain blasting the fragile barrier islands even as it appeared the mainland had avoided severe flooding. Thousands of homes and businesses had no electricity.
As the erratic storm slowed almost to a halt during the early afternoon, the National Hurricane Center said its northern eyewall, the ring of high wind surrounding the eye, could remain over the Outer Banks for 12 to 24 more hours.
"If you have been asked to evacuate and did not, now is not the time to do it, especially if you are in the Outer Banks," Gov. Mike Easley said at a midday briefing.
Many residents of the Outer Banks' Hatteras and Ocracoke islands were believed to have defied evacuation orders.
Although Ophelia was barely moving, it still had sustained wind of 80 mph Thursday, down from 85 mph early in the day, the hurricane center said. A gust to 95 mph was recorded at Hatteras Village, the center said.
The hurricane was "just beating us to death," said Alton Ballance, a former Hyde County commissioner who lives on Ocracoke. "It's similar to the wintertime nor'easters that lay there and beat you for a couple of days."
It was expected to produce 3 to 5 more inches of rain along the coast, with a possibility of storm totals of up to 15 inches in some places, meteorologists said. Easley said 12 to 15 inches of rain had already fallen on some southern coastal locations, including Wilmington, where rain had stopped Thursday.
"I think we will be dealing with water in some places for a while," said New Hanover County emergency management director Warren Lee.
A hurricane warning covered about 220 miles along the coast from Surf City north of Wilmington to the Virginia line, and a tropical storm warning covered the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.
By late morning, no flooding or major damage had been reported on Hatteras Island, said Dare County spokeswoman Quinn Capps.
"People are heeding the warnings - they're staying off the roads," she said.
Ophelia was expected to head back out into the open Atlantic after its assault on the Outer Banks.
At 2 p.m. EDT, Ophelia was centered about 35 miles south-southwest of Cape Hatteras and about 55 miles east-northeast of Cape Lookout. After drifting erratically toward the east-northeast at just 3 mph during the morning, it had become nearly stationary. Ophelia was expected to resume a slow, wobbling drift toward the east or east-northeast.
At the mainland town of New Bern, on Pamlico Sound, water was receding Thursday after failing to reach the flood levels seen during 2003's Hurricane Isabel.
"We pretty much dodged a big, slow-moving bullet, I tell you," New Bern Mayor Tom Bayliss told CNN. He said the town had high water and sporadic power outages throughout the night.
High water marooned some people in their homes in the community of Harlowe, said Chuck Webb, assistant chief of the Harlowe volunteer fire department. "They are on islands," he said.
Beyond damage to private piers along the coast, "there's been very little structural damage," said Hunter Birckhead, a state Division of Emergency Management spokesman. "It's mostly shingles and minor roof damage to this point."
On Ocean Isle Beach, south of Wilmington, a 50-foot section of beachfront road was washed out by heavy surf. To the north, the surf chewed away the end of a hotel's pier on Bogue Banks, a barrier island.
Following the criticism of its response to Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had 250 workers on the ground - a larger-than-usual contingent given Ophelia's size. FEMA also put Coast Guard Rear Adm. Brian Peterman in place to command any federal response the storm might require.
More than 81,000 homes and business were without power at midday Thursday in eastern North Carolina, down from a peak of 200,000 during the night, utilities said.
Ophelia is the 15th named storm and seventh named hurricane of this year's busy Atlantic season, which ends Nov. 30.