Ernesto Soaks Virginia, Carolinas

The Associated Press
Friday, September 1, 2006; 11:59 PM

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.

At least one person died when a massive tree crushed a modular home in Gloucester, Va. Gloucester Sheriff's Maj. Mike Nicely told the Daily Press of Newport News that rescuers found one body trapped under the tree and feared another resident was dead inside.

The storm was blamed for at least two 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.

In Newport News, Mary Immaculate Hospital lost all power, including back up generators, for about 8 hours Friday afternoon, cutting off phone service and forcing staff to use manual respirators on patients with breathing problems.

People also were ordered to evacuate a few hundred homes in three low-lying Maryland communities _ Cornfield Harbor, Breton Beach, and St. George's Island _ and people in 17 other communities were encouraged to evacuate, said St. Mary's County spokeswoman Jennifer Fabbricante.

North Carolina got the heaviest initial rainfall, with 8 to 12 inches across much of the eastern part of the state. Parts of western Virginia got 6 inches by midmorning, and rain in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., measured nearly 7 inches.

The weather was bad enough that the Breeder's Cup, scheduled for Saturday in Delaware, was postponed for a week.

In Beaufort County, near the North Carolina 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.

To the southwest in rural Duplin County, about 90 people in the towns of Chinquapin and Wallace were rescued from flooded homes. Mailboxes and street signs poked out of about 4 feet of lakelike water along one road.

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