Water officials still watchful, though Ernesto eased drought

The Associated PressSeptember 8, 2006 

— Heavy rains from Tropical Storm Ernesto and other storms last week eased the drought in northern North Carolina and filled reservoirs but did not end dry conditions in much of the state, climate experts said Thursday.

Only the state's eight westernmost counties remained in moderate drought Thursday, but central and Western North Carolina were still considered abnormally dry, according to the latest report from the N.C. Drought Management Advisory Council.

" 'Abnormally dry' means we're keeping an eye on things," state climatologist Ryan Boyles said. "When we actually see impacts on streams, reservoirs, agriculture, then we implement some kind of drought designation."

Ernesto moved into North Carolina late Sept. 1 and dropped its heaviest rain in the southeast, where rivers remained flooded Thursday and farmers tried to recover from a reported $50 million in storm-related damages.

A cold front that moved in ahead of Ernesto brought at least an inch of rain to central and western parts of the state, though many areas got between 3 and 6 inches, Boyles said. The rain was more than forecasters expected, but Boyles remained cautious as the typically dry months of October and November approach.

"We're already seeing that streams are dropping down to pre-storm levels. Reservoirs are filling up, but a lot of rain in a couple days doesn't help groundwater," he said. "The ground can't absorb it fast enough."

The storm runoff helped reservoirs across the state, including Jordan Lake, the primary water supply for Cary and Apex, and W. Kerr Scott Dam and Reservoir in Wilkes County. Both were at capacity, said Tony Young, a water manager with the Army Corps of Engineers in Wilmington.

Falls Lake outside Raleigh was just below capacity, and reservoirs serving the Asheville area were also near capacity or full.

"All those reservoirs were below full before Ernesto came through," Young said. "This definitely helped to at least keep the drought at bay."

The rains overwhelmed rivers and streams in the southeast. Flooding of the Northeast Cape Fear River continued Thursday in Pender and Duplin counties, where more than 150 people have been evacuated since the river spilled over its banks Sept. 1.

The river was slowly receding but was still more than 5 feet above flood stage near Chinquapin on Thursday, according to the National Weather Service. It was unclear how many people have returned to their homes. No serious injuries have been reported.

The rain also proved too much for eastern farmers. The storms flooded tobacco and produce fields, and thousands of chickens and turkeys drowned, causing about $50 million in damage, according the state Department of Agriculture. Overall damage estimates should be available next week when state assessment teams return from the coast.

Ernesto was briefly the season's first hurricane before it rolled up the East Coast, dumping heavy rains along coastal areas in North Carolina and Virginia.

The storm was blamed for at least nine deaths in the United States, including one traffic fatality in North Carolina. Ernesto delayed the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis in Florida and blacked out thousands of homes and businesses from North Carolina to New York.

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