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N.C. is spared — relatively — as Ophelia heads north

HATTERAS, N.C. — Ophelia finally took leave of North Carolina on Friday, downgrading to a tropical storm but picking up speed for a possible run-in with the New England coast.

The storm left extensive damage in eastern North Carolina, including beach erosion and ravaged homes and businesses, but overall the region was spared the devastating blow that some feared when Ophelia first brushed the coast Tuesday.

One risk-modeling company estimated on Friday that losses would top out at $800 million.

"We were really blessed. . . . We had a potential to be neck-deep where we're standing," said lifelong Hatteras resident Allen Fagley, 54.

Ophelia, which meandered north after forming off the Florida coast last week, was offshore again, moving north-northeast at about 8 mph, the National Hurricane Center said. At 5 p.m. EDT, Ophelia was centered about 355 miles south-southwest of Massachusetts' Nantucket island.

A tropical storm warning was posted Friday for Rhode Island's coast and southeastern Massachusetts, including Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. The warning means tropical-storm force winds of 39 mph or higher were expected.

Stuart Smith, the harbormaster in Chatham, Mass., off Cape Cod, said fishermen were moving their boats to sheltered waters. His patrol boats were checking remaining boats for loose moorings.

The storm took its time off the North Carolina coast, where its effects were felt for three days, slowing to a near-complete stop at one point, battering beaches with high winds and giant waves.

On Friday, power was still off at about 9,000 homes and businesses, down from a peak of more than 200,000.

Roads on Hatteras Island, a main link in the Outer Banks chain of barrier islands, sat under water inches deep, though the island was otherwise largely unscathed. Carteret County appeared to have suffered the most. In the tourist area of Atlantic Beach, workers at restaurants and other businesses were cleaning up, stacking chairs and tables outside in the sunlight and piling debris from roofs into trucks to be hauled away.

Nearby in Morehead City, an ambulance sported a sign that read: "WE NEED ELECTRICITY PLEASE."

"This is our communication line to the world right now," said Marci Wilson, manager of a private ambulance company, as she pulled out a personal cell phone.

Environmental officials worried about erosion.

"It kept grinding away at the beaches," said Chris Carlson, of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

At Wilmington's Wrightsville Beach, yellow tape blocked beach access at the end of one street, keeping people from an 8-foot drop where Ophelia had eaten away at the sand.

AIR Worldwide Corp., a risk-modeling firm based in Boston, said the damage included lost roof shingles, awnings and the like, along with damage from fallen trees.

Ophelia is the 15th named storm and seventh named hurricane of this year's Atlantic season, which ends Nov. 30.

Contributing: Paul Nowell, Margaret Lillard, Martha Waggoner.