Tropical Storm Ernesto dumped heavy rain on North and South Carolina as it closed in on the US East Coast near hurricane strength on Thursday, and forecasters warned it could trigger life-threatening floods and tornadoes.
Ernesto, which sloshed through Florida on Wednesday after briefly becoming the Atlantic storm season's first hurricane near Haiti, had sustained winds of 70 miles per hour (113 km per hour), just short of the 74 mph (119 kph) needed for hurricane status, the US National Hurricane Center said.
Forecasters said Ernesto could dump up to 8 inches (20 cm) of rain along its path, where residents remember catastrophic flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
The governors of both North and South Carolina activated National Guard troops to deal with Ernesto. But storm-savvy residents of the Outer Banks in North Carolina seemed unconcerned.
"Everybody is just taking it in stride," said Ann Warren, owner of Howard's Pub on Hatteras Island. "Calm. Not expecting anything major to happen... They're just going about their business."
State ferry service from the Outer Banks island of Ocracoke to Cedar Island on the mainland was cancelled as a precaution.
The National Park Service campgrounds on Ocracoke and Hatteras Island were closed.
The barrier island has more than 900 permanent residents with several thousand tourists typically on the island at this time of year.
A hurricane watch was in effect from South Santee River in South Carolina, to Cape Lookout in North Carolina.
"Ernesto could reach the coast as a Category One hurricane," the hurricane center said.
At 5 p.m. (2100 GMT), Ernesto was located about 75 miles (120 km) east of Charleston, South Carolina, or 120 miles (195 km) south-southwest of Wilmington, North Carolina, the hurricane center said. It was racing toward the north-northeast at about 17 mph (27 kph).
The storm's most likely track had it moving ashore near the North Carolina-South Carolina border on Thursday night.
Forecasters said Ernesto could bring 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm) of rain to areas from northeastern South Carolina to the mid-Atlantic states, with 12 inches (30 cm) in isolated areas.
More than 4 inches (10 cm) of rain had already fallen by late afternoon in Brunswick County, along the South Carolina border.
Hurricane Floyd, a Category 2 storm with winds near 104 mph (167 kph), killed 56 people and caused up to $6 billion worth of damage when it triggered huge floods seven years ago.
It hammered North Carolina's farming industry, killing tens of thousands of hogs and chickens.
Ernesto had at one point been forecast to reach Florida as a potential Category 3 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity.
But it moved ashore as a much weaker storm and did little damage in the state.