Tropical Storm Ophelia lumbered up the Eastern Seaboard on Saturday, flooding streets, downing power lines and sparking an explosion while sparing much of the East Coast from more catastrophic damage.
About 14 hours after making landfall near Emerald Isle, N.C., with near-hurricane-force winds of 70 mph, Ophelia was downgraded from a tropical storm to a tropical depression as it approached Richmond about 8 p.m. Saturday. The National Hurricane Center canceled all tropical storm and storm surge warnings as it downgraded the storm.
Despite weakening, Ophelia was still expected to bring flooding rains near its core and coastal flooding throughout the Mid-Atlantic, especially around high tide overnight Saturday and into Sunday morning. The center of the tropical depression is expected to be along Maryland’s Eastern Shore around 2 p.m. on Sunday, before veering toward the Atlantic, off the coast of New Jersey by 2 a.m. Monday.
With a large field of tropical-storm-force winds that extended 310 miles from its center and bands of heavy rain, the storm made its presence known along hundreds of miles of the East Coast all day. A large swath of the Interstate 95 corridor was expected to endure wind gusts of 35 to 65 mph all weekend, with the strongest winds near the coast and along the Chesapeake Bay.
Roads were flooded in Greenville, N.C., Atlantic City and coastal locations in between.
But Ophelia did not produce quite the extent of damage authorities feared earlier in the week. No fatalities attributable to the storm were reported as of 9 p.m.
“It’s not as bad as it could have been,” Pitt County Sheriff Paula Dance said in an interview. “The wind was loud, but I know it could have been worse.”
She said there were scattered road closures and outages from flooding in her North Carolina county, which includes Greenville, but the rain had turned to mist Saturday afternoon.
No one was injured when a downed power line caused an explosion at a home in Yeadon, Pa., a borough that borders Philadelphia. Residents of a senior living center and some homes were evacuated.
“It was sparking and somehow found its way to a gas main,” Yeadon Police Chief Henry J. Giammarco Jr. told The Washington Post. “So a house did explode, but no one was injured.”
The incident is under investigation by the public utilities commission, Giammarco added.
“The type of flooding we’re seeing today, we’re almost used to it,” said Scott Evans, Atlantic City’s fire chief. “We’re becoming more resilient to the more frequent events that can lead to flooding.”
Evans said much of the Atlantic City beach had eroded, but traffic was heavy on Saturday evening as people flocked to casinos and shows.
Elsewhere, strong winds and rolling waves hit the shore up and down the East Coast. Storm surges pushed waters into neighborhoods. Flooding hit spots such as New Bern and Washington, N.C., which sit on rivers fed by Pamlico Sound, and affected the coast farther north in Bethany Beach, Del., and Sea Isle City, N.J. Residents of Washington, N.C., were warned on the city’s Facebook page to avoid the downtown area.
As of 8 p.m. Saturday, the storm was centered 40 miles to the south-southwest of Richmond, according to the Hurricane Center, as it headed north at 9 mph. Its peak winds were around 35 mph, down 50 percent from when it crossed the coast at 6:15 a.m. close to hurricane strength.
In a special bulletin, the National Weather Service said 2 to 7 inches of rain had fallen over portions of eastern North Carolina by midafternoon and predicted that downpours would hit eastern Virginia, including Richmond, late Saturday afternoon into the evening.
Rain as much as one inch per hour was expected farther north on the I-95 corridor, prompting a flood watch for the Washington-Baltimore region within a one-county radius of I-95 Saturday night into Sunday morning.
The New York City Emergency Management department issued a travel advisory for Saturday through Sunday, urging New Yorkers to use public transportation. The city is expected to see 2 to 3 inches of rainfall overall, and the department warned of possible flooding on the coast and in low-lying areas or places with poor drainage.
At least 3,000 customers in North Carolina and at least 11,000 in Virginia were without power Saturday night, according to local electric utilities, along with a few thousand in Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey.
“We are expecting Ophelia to continue moving northward,” Hurricane Center Director Michael Brennan said in a midday update on YouTube. “This is going to be a widespread heavy rainfall continuing through the day today and even into tomorrow.”
There are “expansive impacts ongoing this morning from Ophelia as it moves inland,” he said. “A lot of the impacts are occurring well in advance of the center” of the storm arriving over land, he said.
Even before the storm made landfall, five people had to be rescued Friday night from a boat anchored near the North Carolina coastline, according to the Coast Guard.
They were aboard a 38-foot catamaran anchored in Lookout Bight in Cape Lookout, N.C., stuck in choppy water with strong winds. According to the Coast Guard, the sailboat’s owner called them on a cellphone, prompting a nighttime rescue mission. They were picked up by a Coast Guard boat and a Coast Guard helicopter lit up the path back to the station. There were no injuries reported.
The governors of North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland all declared a state of emergency on Friday and several weekend events were canceled. The North Carolina Ferry System suspended service on all routes until conditions improved.
In addition to Ophelia, the National Weather Service said heavy rain, tornadoes, flooding, hail and strong winds were likely throughout the central United States Saturday. Tornadoes and wind damage were most likely in western Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri, according to the agency.
And far out in the eastern Atlantic, Tropical Storm Philippe formed Saturday evening, according to the Hurricane Center. It was forecast to curl north over the central Atlantic and is no threat to land.
Jason Samenow, Ian Livingston, Kyle Rempfer, Caroline Anders and Meagan Flynn contributed to this report.