Lee inundates the Gulf Coast
09/05/2011 12:08 AM
09/05/2011 12:08 AM
SAUCIER, Miss. —Lee dumped more than a foot of rain in New Orleans and spun off tornadoes elsewhere Sunday as its center came ashore in a slow crawl north that raised fears of inland flash flooding in the Deep South and beyond.
The massive weather system spent most of the day as a tropical storm but weakened late in the evening to a tropical depression with maximum sustained winds of 35 mph. Still, forecasters said heavy rain and flooding remained a threat.
Areas of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi near the coast reported scattered wind damage and flooding, but evacuations appeared to be in the hundreds rather than the thousands and New Orleans' levees were doing their job just over six years after Hurricane Katrina swamped the city.
National Hurricane Center specialist Robbie Berg said Lee's flash flood threat could be more severe as the rain moves from the flatter Gulf region into the rugged Appalachians.
Closer to the Gulf, the water is "just going to sit there a couple of days," he said. "Up in the Appalachians you get more threat of flash floods — so that's very similar to some of the stuff we saw in Vermont."
Vermont is still cleaning up and digging out dozens of communities that were damaged and isolated last week when heavy rain from Tropical Storm Irene quickly flooded mountain rivers.
No deaths had been directly attributed to Lee, though a body-boarder in Galveston, Texas, drowned after being pulled out to sea in heavy surf. The Coast Guard was also searching Sunday for a teenage boy swept away by rough surf off Gulf Shores, Ala.
A man in Mississippi also suffered non-life-threatening injuries when authorities said he was struck by lightning that traveled through a phone line.
The vast, soggy system spent hours during the weekend hovering in the northernmost Gulf of Mexico before its center finally crossed into Louisiana west of New Orleans, deluging a wide swath of coastline.
Some of the damage on the Gulf Coast, where tropical storms are an almost yearly event, appeared to come from spinoff tornadoes that touched down in southern Mississippi and Alabama.
Dena Hickman said her home in Saucier, Miss., was damaged overnight by what she believes was a tornado. It happened too fast for her to get her 12-year-old daughter, who uses a wheelchair, out of her bed and into a safer place.
"I laid on top of her to try to protect her. It all happened so quickly I couldn't do anything else," she said.
In New Orleans, rainfall totals approached 14 inches in some neighborhoods by Sunday night. Downpours caused some street flooding Saturday and Sunday, but pumps were sucking up the water and sending it into Lake Pontchartrain. The mayor's office said all 24 of the pumps were working at capacity.
Flooding in Livingston Parish forced an estimated 200 families from their homes, said Mark Benton, parish director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness.
A possible tornado struck southern Mobile County in Alabama, snapping oak limbs, knocking out power and damaging at least one home.
In Gulf Shores, Ala., three teenagers were swept out by a rip current, and two people who tried to help them also became distressed, said Maj. Anthony Lowery of the Baldwin County Sheriff's Office. Four eventually made it out, but the Coast Guard was still searching for a 16-year-old boy Sunday night.
Mississippi Emergency Management Agency spokesman Greg Flynn said flooding was reported in Mississippi's six southernmost counties, with some homes flooded with an inch or two of water in coastal Jackson County.
Marc McAllister, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jackson, said Lee could drop 4 to 8 inches of rain as it pushes across Alabama on Tuesday and Wednesday and into Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina. The storm is expected to produce less rain the farther north it gets.