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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ophelia becomes a tropical depression after bringing flooding to mid-Atlantic

Surfers ride the waves Saturday as the ocean is whipped up by Tropical Storm Ophelia at Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington, N.C. The cyclone weakened to a tropical depression by evening.

By Judson Jones and Rebecca Carballo

Ophelia was downgraded to a tropical depression Saturday night after making landfall in the morning as a tropical storm near Emerald Isle, North Carolina, bringing high winds that knocked out power for thousands and heavy rains and storm surge that flooded roadways in parts of the mid-Atlantic.

As of 8 p.m. Saturday, the storm was about 60 miles south-southwest of Richmond, Virginia, and its maximum sustained winds had decreased to 35 mph, the National Hurricane Center said. The storm is expected to cause “considerable flash, urban and small stream flooding,” from North Carolina to New Jersey, the hurricane center said.

About 11,000 customers in Virginia remained without power Saturday evening, according to Nearly 50,000 customers in several states were without power at the peak of the storm Saturday.

Shawn Hendrix, 46, of Winterville, North Carolina, noticed his lights flicker, but the roads were more troublesome. He went for a drive in his pickup truck to see the effects of the storm and found most of the streets in his neighborhood underwater.

“It’s really clear water, so it only looks like a few inches deep,” Hendrix said. “But when we start driving through, we recognized very quickly that it’s a lot deeper than it looks.”

Hendrix, who said he saw neighbors kayaking across the street, immediately turned around. He made it home safely, crediting his large vehicle, and said he did not plan to venture too far until the floodwaters recede.

“I’ve got 35-inch tires on my truck, and the water was over halfway up my tire,” he said. “So if you drive a small car, you can get in trouble real fast.”

Jonathan Blaes, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Raleigh, North Carolina, said there were several reports of downed trees Saturday in the Rocky Mount-Wilson area in the northeastern part of the state. In the Raleigh-Durham area, a few cars were stranded in flooded roadways, he said.

In New Jersey, flooded roadways plagued coastal communities, including Brielle, where high tide caused water to gush onto lanes and sidewalks.

Marc Geller, who used to manage the Jaspan True Value hardware store in Manasquan on the Jersey Shore, said he was “sorry to not be in business” anymore because it seemed the flooding was particularly bad Saturday, and that would usually mean more customers seeking batteries and flashlights.

In Virginia, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued five people, including three children ages 10, 7 and 4, from an anchored 38-foot catamaran that was caught in weather conditions caused by Ophelia, the Coast Guard said. The boat owner was uncomfortable in the channel because of the storm and requested to be rescued, the Coast Guard said.

Ophelia was forecast to weaken by Sunday as it neared southern Maryland. Rainfall totals were expected to vary and could lead to some flooding from North Carolina to New Jersey, forecasters said. Parts of North Carolina and Virginia could receive up to 8 inches.

Highest local rainfall totals included Cape Carteret, North Carolina, which had recorded 7.65 inches of rain as of 10 a.m. Saturday, followed by New Bern, North Carolina, which had 6.61 inches, according to the Weather Prediction Center. Portsmouth, Virginia, recorded nearly 5 inches of rain.

Parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are not likely to get the worst of Ophelia, as the storm is expected to be downgraded to a tropical depression by the time it reaches the tri-state area, said James Tomasini, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“The highest winds are going to be in the coastal areas,” Tomasini said. “We’re just looking at widespread light rainfall.”

Still, the New York metropolitan area will get about 2 1/2 inches of rain over the weekend, he added. Vulnerable sections of southern bays of Nassau and Queens counties and coastal Westchester and Fairfield counties will have up to 1 foot of rising water Saturday afternoon and evening, Tomasini said.

States from the Carolinas to Delaware were under tropical storm warnings or storm surge warnings, meaning that sustained winds of at least 39 mph were expected in those areas within 36 hours, according to the National Weather Service.

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.

In late May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that there would be 12 to 17 named storms this year, a “near-normal” amount. On Aug. 10, NOAA officials revised their estimate upward, to 14 to 21 storms.

There were 14 named storms last year, after two extremely busy Atlantic hurricane seasons in which forecasters ran out of names and had to resort to backup lists. (A record 30 named storms took place in 2020.)

This year features an El Nino pattern, which arrived in June.

In the Atlantic, El Nino increases the amount of wind shear, or the change in wind speed and direction from the ocean or land surface into the atmosphere. Hurricanes need a calm environment to form, and the instability caused by increased wind shear makes those conditions less likely.

There is solid consensus among scientists that hurricanes are becoming more powerful because of climate change. Although there might not be more named storms overall, the likelihood of major hurricanes is increasing.

Climate change is also affecting the amount of rain that storms can produce.

And researchers have found that storms have slowed down, sitting over areas for longer, over the past few decades. When a storm slows down over water, the amount of moisture the storm can absorb increases.

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