Ophelia slowly moves up East Coast

Tropical Storm Ophelia picked up speed but weakened Friday as it skirted up the East Coast after pounding North Carolina's Outer Banks.

The storm was downgraded from a Category 1 hurricane late Thursday after downing trees and power lines across the region. Low-lying areas reported flooding -- some with as much as 18 inches of rain in a 24-hour period.

Ophelia's eye never officially made landfall, instead slowing to a crawl off the coast as it moved ever so slightly to the east.

Forecasters predict the storm's center will remain over the Atlantic Ocean as it moves northward.

At 11 a.m. ET, the center of Ophelia was about 70 miles (112 kilometers) east-northeast of North Carolina's Cape Hatteras.

Moving north-northeast at about 8 mph (13 kph), Ophelia was expected to continue its turn toward the northeast and increase in speed Friday, the National Hurricane Center said.

Ophelia's maximum sustained winds dropped to about 60 mph (96 kph) with higher gusts, and the storm's intensity was not expected to change significantly over the next 24 hours.

North Carolinians breathed a sign of relief that the storm did not sweep ashore -- especially with images of Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast fresh in their minds.

"Mother Nature plays strange tricks in strange ways, but the Outer Banks has been spared a direct hit," said Sandy Sanderson, director of emergency management for Dare County, which includes a large chunk of the Outer Banks.

Nevertheless, there was heavy damage in some places. A tidal surge from Ophelia brutalized coastal businesses in Salter Path on Bogue Banks, southwest of Morehead City.

"The damage that we've seen driving toward the middle of this island is really dramatic," said CNN meteorologist Rob Marciano.

A tropical storm watch was in effect for a portion of Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, including Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.

A watch also was issued for southwestern Nova Scotia in Canada, from Yarmouth to Lunenberg.

A tropical storm watch means tropical storm conditions, including winds of at least 39 mph (63 kph), are possible within the next 36 hours.

The storm could dump up to 3 inches of rain across portions of southeastern New England.

The National Hurricane Center discontinued a tropical storm warning from Cape Lookout, North Carolina, north to the North Carolina-Virginia border.

Above normal tides along the North Carolina coast should subside on Friday.

As much as 18 inches of rain have fallen between Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina; the area north of Wilmington toward the Outer Banks has seen 10 inches.

As the storm approached, mandatory evacuations were ordered for portions of six counties in North Carolina -- Brunswick, Carteret, Dare, Hyde, Onslow and Pender.

Voluntary evacuations were also in place for parts of eight counties in the eastern part of the state.

At least 80,000 customers were without power, North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley said, not including Hatteras Island, Okracoke Island, Buxton and Frisco, all of which had no power.

Easley said that the National Guard had set up four staging areas to evacuate the elderly and others with special needs from low-lying areas as the storm approached. Sixty-one shelters opened across the state.