WILMINGTON, N.C. — Tropical Storm Ernesto moved ashore late Thursday night near Long Beach, N.C., forecasters said, bringing heavy rain squalls and a storm surge of 3 to 5 feet that swamped beaches.
The storm picked up steam with surprising speed in the warm waters of the Atlantic on Thursday as it swirled along the coast of the Carolinas, forcing the closing of ports and campgrounds.
Virginia's governor declared a state of emergency and hundreds of National Guardsmen were activated there and in North Carolina.
The storm's winds were about 70 mph, just short of the 74 mph threshold for a hurricane. Its winds had increased steadily through the day from around 40 mph overnight as the storm drew energy from the warm water.
"In the world of meteorology, it's just one surprise after another," said Tom Matheson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington.
By 10:45 p.m. Thursday, Ernesto had dumped 8.19 inches of rain on the Wilmington area, a record for the date, the weather service said. The previous Aug. 31 record of 2.27 inches was set in 2002. The record one-day rainfall for the area was 13.38 inches from Hurricane Floyd on Sept. 15, 1999.
Just a day earlier, Ernesto had been downgraded to a tropical depression, not even making the grade as a tropical storm.
Ernesto's wind was less a concern than the threat of flooding. Parts of North Carolina were already drenched by thunderstorms that began Wednesday. Ernesto was expected to bring as much as 10 more inches of rain to some areas.
"We need some rain around here -- just not all at once," said Jean Evans, a convenience store worker on North Carolina's Holden Beach.
The National Park Service closed some facilities on the Outer Banks, including two campgrounds near Cape Hatteras. The Coast Guard closed ports at Wilmington and Morehead City.
The storm was expected to move slowly across North Carolina today, spreading heavy rain over a wide area. Flooding was forecast in Virginia and in the Washington, D.C., area.
Ernesto briefly reached hurricane strength on Sunday, but it lost much of its punch crossing mountainous eastern Cuba and was a tropical storm of about 45 mph by the time it blew ashore in Florida on Tuesday night. It weakened further as it moved over the state.
No immediate evacuations were ordered in the Carolinas, though both states urged residents to keep abreast of forecasts and obey any instructions to get out of danger.
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine declared a state emergency, putting 200 National Guardsmen on duty and opening the state's Emergency Operations Center in suburban Richmond. North Carolina Gov. Michael F. Easley activated 200 National Guard troops and had other emergency teams on standby.