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Boston Weather: 34.0°F | A Few Clouds

Bonnie Now a Tropical Storm, Heading North After Landfall

By Sue Anne Pressley
The Washington Post

Downgraded to a tropical storm, Bonnie lumbered northeast toward the Atlantic on Thursday, apparently having spared North Carolina's coast the extensive damage authorities had feared. It left disappointed vacationers, fallen trees, scattered flooding - and a lot of relief - in its wake.

A tropical storm watch, meaning the risk of sustained winds of 39 to 74 mph, remained in effect from the New River Inlet in North Carolina to Sandy Hook, N.J., including sections of the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River. But officials in southeastern Virginia joined their Carolina neighbors in the relief, dismantling emergency operations and buckling down for a storm like many others they have weathered.

The lingering storm dumped as much as 14 inches of rain on some North Carolina coastal communities, flooding waterways and washing out roads. Shingles and siding were ripped from homes and piers were damaged by winds estimated at 115 mph as they moved ashore on Cape Fear at midafternoon Wednesday, howling at a decreasing pitch through the night during their slow drift north. At one point, more than 1 million people were out of power Thursday because of lines torn down by the Category 3 storm.

The hurricane, with gusts still reaching 100 mph, shook the trees in Morehead City like feather dusters as morning broke. By late morning, however, as the winds wound down and moved on, the first motorists ventured slowly through sheets of rain onto Route 24, dodging tree limbs and debris. By afternoon, worried residents in New Bern and Wilmington left motels and shelters and returned to check for damage to their homes.

At day's end, the skies were still dark and menacing even though the worst of the storm had passed. But in early assessments, officials said, Bonnie did not seem so bad - not nearly as bad as Hurricane Fran two years ago, which also packed 115-mph winds, but left $5.2 billion of damage and 24 people dead. Hurricane Bertha, two months earlier in July 1996, caused nine deaths and an estimated $250 million in damages.

No serious injuries or deaths have been reported since Bonnie blew ashore.

President Clinton declared a disaster area in North Carolina, allowing federal funds to be used to repair the damage. And Gov. James Hunt (D) cautioned residents, many of whom received more than a month's worth of rainfall in two days, that they would have to be "vigilant about flooding for days to come." Hunt said nearly 17,000 people spent the night in emergency shelters.

Tropical Storm Bonnie was expected to continue its slow northeast crawl up the coast, drifting back into the Atlantic sometime during Thursday night around the Virginia line if it maintains its current course, forecasters predicted.