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Tropical storm forms off Southeast coast

Sunday, July 20, 2008

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Tropical Storm Cristobal churned off the Southeast seaboard Saturday, the first storm to threaten the U.S. this hurricane season, forecasters said.

The storm strengthened from a tropical depression, generating maximum sustained winds of about 45 mph as it promised to bring much-needed rains to the parched eastern Carolinas.

At 4 p.m. CDT, the center of the storm was about 125 miles east of Charleston and about 205 miles southwest of Cape Hatteras, N.C. The National Hurricane Center said Cristobal was moving northeast at about 7 mph.

Although the center of the storm was forecast to remain off the coast through the weekend, tropical storm warnings were in effect from the South Santee River in South Carolina to the North Carolina-Virginia state line, including Pamlico Sound.

Flood advisories were posted for coastal counties and Wilmington, N.C., received 2 1/2 inches of rain Saturday, said Stephen Keebler, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service there. Cristobal's winds were not expected to be a problem, Keebler said.

"It's some rain and a little bit of relief for the coastal areas and a lot of excitement, but that's about it," he said.

The rain bands were weakening as they spun farther inland, providing little relief for parched areas near Interstate 95 in North Carolina, he said.

Forecasters predicted up to 5 inches of rain along the North Carolina coast, with heavier amounts in some areas.

Eastern North Carolina is under a moderate drought while areas along South Carolina's northern coast are considered abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Officials have blamed the persistent drought for a massive wildfire that has burned more than 40,000 acres in eastern North Carolina since it began June 1 with a lightning strike.

As Cristobal lurked offshore, the storm was keeping many boaters off the waters -- and surfers in the waves.

"There's not a lot of boat traffic on the water," said Gray Wilson, working at the Wrightsville Beach Marina in Wrightsville Beach, N.C. Although he added most boaters did not appear overly concerned about Cristobal, "people have been staying in."

On North Carolina's Outer Banks, surfers reveled in the waves as the storm churned offshore well to the south.

Bradley Rose, a surf instructor at SandBarz in Carolina Beach, N.C., said the waves were a bit choppy.

"It looks pretty fun out there," Rose said.

At the By The Sea Motel in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., out-of-state vacationers took to the beach trying to photograph the outer rainbands of Cristobal, said hotel manager Charlie Peterson. Intermittent light rain showers during the afternoon were not enough to chase them away and there were even brief moments of sunshine.

"They've got their cameras set and they think there is going to be lightning over the water and all," he said. "They have never seen this."

Elsewhere Saturday, Hurricane Fausto strengthened far off Mexico's Pacific coast, while Hurricane Bertha raced rapidly to the northeast over the North Atlantic, hundreds of miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Neither of those storms currently threaten land. Bertha had blustered across Bermuda earlier this week, knocking out electricity to thousands there.


Associated Press Writer Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.


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