Hurricane Ophelia, the fifteenth named storm of the 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season, may end up going down as the most fickle of them all. With weak steering currents guiding it, Ophelia spun its wheels off the Carolina Coast for eight days. The storm, which ended up being a Category One Hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale, ended up only causing minor damage and no casualties at the time of this report. The one thing that made Ophelia memorable was the way the storm had the models going all over the place before brushing North Carolina's Outer Banks, and missing the Southern tip of New England.
As mentioned earlier, Hurricane Ophelia, spun off the Carolinas for eight days, but it lasted a bit longer than that. Forming during the mid-morning hours of Tuesday, September 6th, 2005, Ophelia had a total storm duration of 11 days. During its life, Ophelia fluctuated between strong tropical storm intensity and Category One Hurricane intensity five times. Its peak winds were 85 mph with higher gusts while its minimum central pressure was as low as 28.82 inches of Hg, or 976 mb.
It was the most unpredictable of the storms that have occurred thus far in 2005. Ophelia went in all kinds of directions, which can occur with tropical storms and hurricanes when steering currents break down. The storm traveled southwest, west-southwest, west-northwest, northwest, north-northwest, north, north-northeast, northeast, and east-northeast. At times the snapshot of all the model runs looked more like a bowl of colored spaghetti off the East Coast of the United States.
The unpredictability of Ophelia led to plenty of battering along the coast as the storm stirred up waves, rip currents, sea swells. This led to plenty of coastal flooding and beach erosion. While no one was reported injured or killed by the storm, Ophelia still managed to cause at least $34 million dollars in damage according to initial tallies from officials in North Carolina. Those damage estimates should rise, but come no where near the staggering cost of Hurricane Katrina, and even the costs from Hurricane Dennis and Hurricane Rita.
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Sometimes hurricanes can move very erratically. One great example of this was Hurricane Elena, which baffled forecasters as well as emergency management personnel along the Gulf Coast before finally making landfall in Biloxi, Mississippi the day after Labor Day in 1985. Another example was Hurricane Felix in 1995, which stirred up a lot of chaos and trouble off the Atlantic Coast from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to the Jersey Shore. In 2004, and so far in 2005, the storm tracks of the tropical cyclones have been well behaved for the most part. There have been slight deviations from the forecast track with such storms as Charley in August, 2004, and Katrina during the weekend prior to its landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi in August, 2005.
Ophelia would be the exception to the rule. As testified by Dr. Keith Blackwell, an Associate Professor of Meteorology at the Coastal Weather Center of the University of South Alabama, this storm showed how really a three day forecast should be applied. Weak steering currents caused the storm to go in all kinds of directions, move very slowly, drift, and even become stationary. This made forecasting the storm track very difficult as the various model runs were scattered in all kinds of scenarios. During eight of its eleven day odyssey, Ophelia moved just a little less than 600 miles. The average speed of the storm during that period was about three miles per hour.
The reason for this was that high pressure to the north of Ophelia in the Western Atlantic blocked its path up the coast while another strong high pressure ridge over the Eastern United States prevented it from coming west. Not only did the highs thwart Ophelia's track to the coast, but it also provided abnormally warm and humid weather to the East Coast, particularly the Northeast. It wouldn't be until around Thursday afternoon that the light appeared at the end of the tunnel as a trough of low pressure began to move into the Eastern United States, and caused weakening in the ridges, and also pushed Ophelia out to sea. However, it wasn't before Ophelia would brush the Outer Banks, and cause plenty of problems for Coastal North Carolina residents.
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As Ophelia churned off the coast of the Carolinas, it stirred up the seas something fierce. While not anywhere near as powerful as Hurricane Katrina, this hurricane still generated a lot of wave energy with its winds hovering between 70 and 85 miles per hour. In addition, the large amount of time that Ophelia stayed in the relatively same location, caused a lot of beach erosion as the battering waves and mild surge ate away at the sand dunes and bulkheads along the coast from South Carolina to the Outer Banks. Storm surge levels were as high as 6 to 8 feet, particularly in the bays, rivers, and sounds.
Places such as Wilmington, Cape Fear, Cape Lookout, Salter Path, Hatteras Village, and Morehead City were pounded by this slow moving storm system. North Carolina was prepared though as their governor, Mike Easley, ordered mandatory evacuations for six coastal counties in the Tar Heel State including Brunswick, Carteret, Dare, Hyde, Onslow, and Pender. Easley had the National Guard ready to go as well as FEMA. He and his staff as well as the federal government weren't going to have a repeat performance of what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Voluntary evacuations were also issued for eight neighboring counties in the Eastern portion of North Carolina. One fear that officials had was the amount of rainfall from Ophelia. Since it was such a slow moving system, it was quite likely that the storm would dump a tremendous amount of rain over Eastern North Carolina. It appeared that residents in North Carolina were going to relive the disastrous floods that happened during Hurricane Floyd in September, 1999 when the storm caused the Tar and Neuse Rivers to go well over their banks. Ophelia would show some mercy though by finally steering away from the Carolinas, and bypassing Southern New England.
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