We were lucky this time#039; By Cal Bryant 09/17/2005 It#039;s better to be safe than sorry. Even though Hurricane Ophelia turned into nothing more than a puff of tropical air accompanied by less-than

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 17, 2005

It's better to be safe than sorry.

Even though Hurricane Ophelia turned into nothing more than a puff of tropical air accompanied by less-than-expected rainfall across the Roanoke-Chowan area, that failed to deter local emergency management officials from a status of high alert.

By Wednesday afternoon, officials in Bertie, Hertford and Northampton counties were preparing for the worse n tropical storm force winds (40-plus mph), 2-4 inches of rain and power outages as Ophelia was in the midst of slamming North Carolina's southeastern coast.

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There was a major concern of a wall of water in the Albemarle Sound, pushed inland by the storm, striking the Bertie County shoreline. However, as Ophelia churned northward up the coast, she began to turn to the east, thus lessening the storm's impact on the Roanoke-Chowan area.

"The expected storm surge on our side of the Albemarle Sound and the mouth of the Chowan River never developed," said Ricky Freeman, Emergency Management Director for Bertie County. "I spoke to a few residents in that part of the county on Thursday morning and they told me the water came up a little bit, but it didn't take long for it to recede."

Freeman continued, "All in all, we came out of this pretty good. The tropical storm force winds and the expected heavy rain never made it this far. We were lucky this time."

In anticipation of a gloomy forecast, Bertie officials did declare a State of Emergency and opened storm shelters Wednesday at both Southwestern Middle School and Colerain Elementary School. Those shelters were strictly for those who lived in low-lying areas of the county as well as those residing in mobile homes.

Both closed Thursday morning.

Freeman said 54 Bertie residents sought shelter from the storm at Southwestern. No one came to the Colerain shelter, although Bertie officials manned the school all night.

In Hertford County, Emergency Management Director Charles Jones reported smooth sailing with the exception of some minor flooding on the Chowan River at Tunis.

Jones reported an approximate three-foot surge in the waters of the Chowan River. Traditionally that results in problems in the low-lying areas bordering the river, especially the Tunis community.

"The folks there at Tunis know the drill when it comes to storms such as this, they've been through this many times before," Jones said. "Most now have their homes elevated and they know to move their vehicles to higher ground when a storm approaches."

This time around, Jones said the flooding at Tunis was limited to water rising just high enough to cover the driveways.

Also operating under a State of Emergency, officials opened a storm shelter at Hertford County High School. Jones reported only four county residents sought refuge in the shelter, one that closed Thursday morning.

"We closed-up shop Thursday morning from an Emergency Command Center standpoint and went back to business as usual," Jones noted. "We got by unscathed from this storm."

Other than a few extremely isolated reports of power outages, Northampton County EMS Director Ronald Storey said his area was basically unaffected by Ophelia.

"We had been tracking the storm since last Friday and we were prepared, but she never paid us a visit," Storey said. "We had some wind gusts and a very little bit of rain, perhaps a tenth of an inch (by noon on Thursday)."

Northampton County did not declare a State of Emergency. No shelters were opened in the county.

"We dodged a bullet this time around," Storey concluded. "We hope that trend continues for us, even though it's awfully dry here throughout the county. We sure could use an inch or two of rain."

After developing off the Florida coast last week, Ophelia slowly inched her way up the southeastern coastline. On several occasions, Ophelia lost her hurricane strength winds and was downgraded to a tropical storm.

By the time she reached the Wilmington area, Ophelia's winds kicked up again to hurricane strength, eventually reaching as high as 85 mph.

Despite its lowly Category 1 status, Ophelia still packed a wallop, pounding the state's south and central beaches. More than 2,000 residents in those areas were housed in storm shelters following evacuation orders. Over 110,000 customers lost electric service.

Rain was another problem. According to National Weather Service officials, Ophelia dumped 17.5 inches of rain on Oak Island, near Southport in Brunswick County.

Ophelia's snail's pace movement meant prolonged wind, causing rough surf that resulted in severe beach erosion as well as tidal surge that flooded coastal roads.

Despite surviving more powerful storms such as hurricanes Floyd, Fran and Isabel, the Atlantic Beach Fishing Pier fell victim to Ophelia.