NORFOLK, Va. — Ernesto weakened to a tropical depression Friday, but the storm still packed enough punch to dump more than half a foot of rain, knock out power to more than 300,000 customers and force hundreds of people from their homes.
And it was far from finished. On the eve of the Labor Day weekend, the storm prompted flash flood watches for wide sections of Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and central New York.
“Nobody is relaxing until long after the storm has passed,” Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said.
The storm was blamed for at least one traffic death in Virginia and one in North Carolina, where it swirled ashore late Thursday, a day after severe thunderstorms had already drenched the region.
More than 200 homes were evacuated in Richmond and about a dozen people had to leave their homes in coastal Poquoson, which is still recovering from Hurricane Isabel three years ago.
About 50 homes on Chesapeake Bay’s Northumberland County were also evacuated, Kaine said.
North Carolina got the heaviest initial rainfall, with more than 8 inches falling on the Wilmington area — a record for the date. Parts of western Virginia got 6 inches by midmorning, and North Myrtle Beach, S.C., measured nearly 7 inches.
In Beaufort County, N.C., near the coast, about 1,500 families were under a mandatory evacuation order, and police went door to door early Friday in an area with poor drainage, said George Sullivan, director of the county Emergency Management Office.
In Virginia, utilities reported about 317,000 customers without power statewide.
The governors of North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, and the mayor of the District of Columbia, each declared a state of emergency because of the storm. Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich said Friday he decided against a state of emergency because his state has been so dry.
Also Friday, a team of hurricane forecasters in Colorado lowered their expectations for the 2006 Atlantic season, predicting only five hurricanes instead of the seven previously forecast.
Ernesto’s top sustained wind reached 70 mph, just 4 mph below hurricane strength, as it passed over land at Long Beach, N.C., just west of Cape Fear. Its sustained wind speed had dropped to 35 mph by midday Friday.
In South Florida, where Ernesto came ashore earlier in the week, several counties prepared to seek reimbursement from the federal government for millions of dollars spent in anticipation of storm damage that never happened.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said that without a federally declared disaster, there was no option for counties to be reimbursed for preparation costs. The only declared state of emergency was made by Gov. Jeb Bush.
At midday, Ernesto was centered about 80 miles west-southwest of Norfolk, Va., and moving north at nearly 14 mph. It was expected to continue its northward track into Pennsylvania and slow down.
At the Virginia Beach oceanfront, winds knocked down tents and portable toilets that had been set up for a music festival this weekend, and all show Friday shows at the American Music Festival were canceled.
Winds gusted at about 60 mph in Hampton, Newport News and Poquoson, the National Weather Service said. Tractor-trailers and recreational vehicles were barred from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, and several ferries on eastern Virginia rivers closed.
On Richmond’s north side, officials ordered residents of more than 200 homes in the Battery Park area to evacuate because the area flooded earlier this week.