Tropical Storm Ophelia was forecast to make landfall in North Carolina early Saturday morning, and to soak portions of several coastal states with up to seven inches of rain as it moves inland over the weekend.
Tropical storm conditions were occurring along the North Carolina coast before dawn on Saturday as the storm moved north, the National Hurricane Center said. As of 2 a.m. it was about 45 miles east of Cape Fear, N.C., and had maximum sustained winds of about 70 miles per hour, the center said in an advisory. Hurricane-strength winds begin at 74 m.p.h.
As Ophelia headed toward the United States, nearly eight million people from the Carolinas to Delaware were under tropical storm warnings as of 2:30 a.m., meaning that sustained winds of at least 39 m.p.h. were expected in those areas within 36 hours, according to the National Weather Service.
A hurricane watch was also in effect for parts of North Carolina, meaning that hurricane-force winds, flood and storm surges were possible within 48 hours. The Hurricane Center said that surge-related flooding would depend partly on the tidal cycle.
North Carolina residents have been advised to stock up on supplies and take other precautions, including securing outdoor furniture, monitoring official alerts and preparing an emergency plan, Will Ray, the state’s emergency management director, said in an interview on Friday, shortly after the storm reached tropical storm strength.
“There is a lot of public messaging going on,” he added.
The storm was expected to weaken quickly after making landfall. Its center was forecast to move north over North Carolina, Virginia and the Delmarva Peninsula later in the weekend.
Rainfall totals across the area will vary and could lead to some flooding, forecasters said. While portions of North Carolina and Virginia could receive up to seven inches, points northward could get up to four inches.
Forecasters also warned that the system could spawn tornadoes through Saturday.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin declared a state of emergency on Friday in Virginia, where residents were told to prepare for heavy rain, flooding, wind damage, tornadoes and other storm-related forces through Sunday.
The storm was forecast to be “approaching large population centers with many at-risk communities,” a statement from Mr. Youngkin’s office said. Residents were told to prepare emergency kits and battery-powered devices, including a radio to receive alerts.
On Friday night, a hurricane watch was in effect north of Surf City, N.C., to Ocracoke Inlet, N.C.
Tropical storm warnings were in effect Friday evening from Cape Fear, north to Fenwick Island, Del. They were also in effect for Albemarle Sound and Pamlico Sound in North Carolina, as well as for some coastal areas of Maryland.
A wedding party was checking in on Friday to the Addy Sea, an oceanfront inn in Bethany Beach, Del., where the storm was kicking up rough surf and strong winds, Cinde Reichard, who works in guest services, said.
She said the wedding had been planned to be held in a tent at the inn, but it was moved to a restaurant a few blocks away. The hotel hired a shuttle to take guests there.
“You can’t have a tent up in that kind of wind,” Ms. Reichard said.
The inn’s staff took other precautions, such as securing outdoor furniture and cushions. “Kind of your basic ‘get everything inside that could become a projectile,’” she said.
In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper and emergency management officials said in a statement on Thursday that strong winds could topple trees and cause power outages, while saturated soil might cause flooding.
Residents were urged to take precautions by stocking up on batteries and, if they did go out, avoiding downed lines and flooded streets. Hurricane Florence in 2018 hit North Carolina hard, sending hundreds of people into shelters amid rising floodwaters.
By Sunday and Monday, the system is likely to be much weaker, with lingering heavy rain, as it inches north over the Chesapeake Bay and the Delmarva Peninsula, forecasters with the Weather Prediction Center said.
The Atlantic hurricane season started on June 1 and runs 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 Niño pattern, which arrived in June.
In the Atlantic, El Niño 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.
Researchers have also 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.
Derrick Bryson Taylor and Mike Ives contributed reporting.