WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) – Hurricane Ophelia was downgraded to a tropical storm again Monday as the indecisive weather system moved slowly off the coast, its outer bands of rain not quite reaching land.

Despite Ophelia’s waxing and waning strength and slow progress, residents’ attention had been focused by the devastation caused elsewhere by Hurricane Katrina.

With the storm’s path uncertain, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford called for a voluntary evacuation Monday of oceanfront and riverside areas in his state’s northeastern corner. “This is a serious storm that’s got the potential to do a lot of damage and put lives in jeopardy if we don’t take it seriously,” he said.

On Sunday, North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley ordered 200 National Guard soldiers to the eastern end of his state. Easley also ordered a mandatory evacuation of nonresidents from fragile Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks, reachable only by ferry.

Although the storm was centered more than 200 miles from Wilmington, it kicked up heavy seas and lifeguards ordered swimmers out of the surf Sunday at Wrightsville Beach, east of the city.

“Now I know how a flounder feels. I was getting tossed all over the place,” said Kathy Carroll, 37, of Wilmington.

With a history of destructive storms, New Hanover County has a well-rehearsed disaster plan. But Katrina, which was a powerful Category 4 hurricane before it made landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi, was on residents’ minds even though Ophelia had grown only as strong as Category 1 as its wind speed rose and fell.

“We’re cautiously watching (Ophelia). We’re not giving up until it’s north of us,” said Warren Lee, emergency management director for New Hanover County.

At 11 a.m. EDT, Ophelia was centered 205 miles east-southeast of Charleston, S.C., and 260 miles south-southwest of Cape Hatteras, the hurricane center said. The storm was creeping toward the northwest at about 2 mph, forecasters said.

Ophelia had been following a wandering course since it became a tropical storm Wednesday off the coast of Florida.

It is the 15th named storm and seventh hurricane in this year’s busy Atlantic hurricane season, which began June 1 and ends Nov. 30. Peak storm activity typically occurs from the end of August through mid-September.


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