WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, N.C. — Vulnerable islands were evacuated and mainland schools were closed Tuesday as Ophelia strengthened to a hurricane and wobbled closer to land with a threat of flooding rain.
The National Hurricane Center upgraded the storm's status Tuesday evening, saying maximum sustained winds had reached 75 mph, with higher gusts. The center said further strengthening was possible.
A hurricane warning extended from the South Santee River in South Carolina north to Oregon Inlet at Pamlico Sound in North Carolina, meaning hurricane conditions were expected within 24 hours.
A hurricane watch and tropical storm warning were in effect from the Oregon Inlet north to the North Carolina-Virginia line and southward from the South Santee River to Edisto Beach in South Carolina.
After taunting residents for days, the storm appeared ready to move ashore, as heavy rain battered South Carolina's northern coast and southeastern North Carolina's beaches.
The week-old Ophelia had followed a meandering path, making predictions of its landfall difficult. The hurricane center's forecasts showed it running along the coast, then veering through Pamlico Sound, crossing the Outer Banks and heading back out to sea.
At least six North Carolina counties ordered mandatory evacuations of some areas, and seven others had voluntary evacuations. Along the exposed Outer Banks chain, residents and visitors were ordered to evacuate Hatteras Island on Tuesday, visitors were ordered off Ocracoke Island and the National Park Service closed the Cape Hatteras lighthouse and the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills.