Gabrielle becomes a tropical storm

NAGS HEAD, N.C. (AP) - Tropical Storm Gabrielle swirled Saturday toward North Carolina's Outer Banks, but its promised rain and high winds weren't enough to scare residents and vacationers away from the beach.

"When people hear about tropical storms, they assume houses are going to fall in the ocean," said Margot Jolly, a lifeguard with Nags Heads Ocean Rescue. "They shouldn't overreact like that. Just relax, stay inside, and have a little hurricane party."

Forecasters said the storm was likely to strengthen before clipping the Outer Banks on Sunday afternoon. Rain from the storm's outer bands began falling in the area late Saturday night, but there were no indications Gabrielle would become a hurricane before turning north and curving back out into the Atlantic.

"It's not going to be one that will go down in the annals of the record books," said Michael Caropolo, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Wilmington.

Around 11 p.m. Saturday, Gabrielle was centered about 115 miles southeast of Cape Lookout, N.C., moving northwest about 12 mph. The storm had top sustained winds of about 40 mph, down slightly from earlier in the day.

Forecasters issued a tropical storm warning for the North Carolina coastline north of Surf City through the Outer Banks and to the Virginia border. A tropical storm warning was issued northward to Cape Charles Light, Va., along the Atlantic Coast, and a watch remained in effect for the area extending to New Point Comfort peninsula, along the Chesapeake Bay.

The first showers from Gabrielle reached the coastline late Saturday night. The National Weather Service said the storm's center could make landfall near Cape Hatteras - the easternmost point on the Outer Banks - at about 8 p.m. Sunday.

Gabrielle was expected to have 45 mph sustained winds by Sunday morning, peaking at about 50 mph in the afternoon, Caropolo said. The weather service warned that storm surge flooding of up to 3 feet was possible, with 1 to 3 inches of rain falling in coastal areas and up to 5 inches in isolated spots.

"The greatest danger will be flooding in low lying areas and on roads, such as Highway 12 on the Outer Banks," North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley said. "The most deaths during tropical storms occur when people drive into flood waters and drown. Rip currents will be strong in the ocean. The safest place to be will be indoors."

Officials urged residents and visitors to the Outer Banks, a popular beach vacation spot, to get ready for the storm by securing loose items outside their homes and to remain indoors as Gabrielle blows through. The National Park Service closed all campgrounds on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

"Most people around here are pretty wise," said 74-year-old D.W. Harris, of Coastal Heights, Va., who has a vacation home on Roanoke Island. "They're not too worried about it."       Caropolo said the storm's greatest danger will come from rough seas, reaching 8 to 11 feet on the ocean side of the central Outer Banks, and rip currents along the shore.

Lifeguards in Wrightsville Beach, about 150 miles south of Nags Head, rescued about a dozen people from rip currents on Saturday, David Baker, ocean rescue director for the Wrightsville Beach Fire Department, told The Star-News of Wilmington. No one was seriously injured.

The rain will be welcome in parched North Carolina, where all the state's 100 counties are experiencing some form of drought. Easley asked Friday that all the state's local governments immediately enact voluntary or mandatory water restrictions.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)