Bonnie was downgraded to a tropical storm Thursday as it poured a torrent of heavy rain on parts of eastern North Carolina, threatening severe flooding as it dragged itself slowly across the state's coastal plain.
Since charging ashore with 115 mph winds Wednesday, Bonnie had quickly slowed to a crawl and gradually lost strength. Thursday, its sustained wind was down to 65 mph, dropping below the minimum hurricane strength of 74 mph.There were no reports of widespread damage, injuries or deaths, though nearly a half-million people had been ordered to evacuate in North and South Carolina. Nearly 400,000 customers lost power in the two states. Tornadoes in Beaufort and Tyrell counties in North Carolina caused only scattered damage.
"We could not be more relieved," Richard Moore, North Carolina's secretary of crime control and public safety, said at a briefing Thursday.
However, there was a possibility Bonnie could drop up to 16 inches of rain, forecasters said.
Virginia officials said the heart of the storm was expected to move across the Norfolk area later Thursday. Swells up to 12 feet were reported off the Virginia coast Thursday, possibly increasing to 18 feet Thursday night.
Heavy rain fell Thursday morning in New Bern and Morehead City, N.C., the rain had trailed off to a drizzle at Wilmington, near the spot where Bonnie roared ashore. Wilmington had collected 9 inches, and Jacksonville had 10.4. Weather reporting equipment in some other towns along the storm's path had been knocked out by the wind.
"I was thinking, why us?" said Dr. William Salling, a Wrightsville Beach dentist, as he removed plywood covering his living room windows. "Why not us? We're better at it than anyone else."
While severe flooding was still only a threat, the Neuse River was already out of its banks at New Bern, near the central North Carolina coast. Many streets were impassable and 770 people were in shelters, said Woody Maness, Craven County's assistant director of emergency services.
The Pamlico River was over its banks at Washington in Beaufort County, more than 100 miles northeast of Wilmington.
Major highways near New Bern and eastward to Morehead City on Bogue Sound were closed by flooding and downed trees and power lines.
Officials scaled back their forecasts of high tides in the region's sounds, saying Bonnie could raise water levels in some areas by 9 feet.
Bonnie's eye - the calm at the storm's center - came ashore at Cape Fear at 2 p.m. Wednesday. It was centered about 80 miles south-southwest of Elizabeth City and moving slowly northeastward at 6 mph, roughly paralleling the coast but still some miles inland.
Initial reports from Wrightsville Beach, east of Wilmington, showed only slight damage - at least compared with the destruction two years ago when the area was hit by hurricanes Bertha and Fran, one after the other. On Thursday Fire Chief Everett Ward said some homes and businesses had water 18 inches deep.
Between Cape Fear and Wilmington, Bonnie's wind peeled the roof off one wing of a hospital, forcing the evacuation of several patients. A 40-foot section of windows was blown out of a Wilmington high school, and piers were damaged by heavy surf at Pine Knoll Shores and Indian Beach in Carteret County, about 100 miles northeast of Cape Fear.
South Carolina got a glancing blow from the storm's edge and reported scattered roof damage. Gov. David Beasley lifted an evacuation order for coastal Horry County.
Elsewhere, Hurricane Danielle was over the Atlantic, about 300 miles northeast of the northern Leeward Islands. It was moving toward the west-northwest at 18 mph with wind of about 90 mph and was expected to strengthen.