Thousands are ordered to evacuate in New Orleans as Tropical Storm Lee moves closer to the Gulf Coast, bringing with it heavy rain and wind.
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 (55 kph). While the change reflected its diminishing wind speeds, forecasters say heavy rain and flooding remain 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 churned up by Lee. 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, pelting a wide swath of coastline.
On Sunday night, the National Hurricane Center said Lee's center was about 55 miles (90 kilometers) west-northwest of McComb, Mississippi and moving east-northeast at 7 mph (11 kph).
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.
Her family weathered the storm, but it damaged shingles on their roof, flipped a 34-foot camper on its side, ripped off the roof of a cinderblock building that houses a water pump and pulled the doors off of a metal shop building. The contents of a neighbor's pulverized trailer were scattered across the Hickmans' yard.
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 sewerage and water board 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. No injuries were reported, but the blast awoke Frank Ledbetter and ripped up the sign for his art gallery.
"It just got louder and louder and louder. I woke my wife up and said, `It's a tornado.' We just dove into the closet in the bedroom," he said.
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.
Witness Charlie Camp saw two teenage boys getting swept away, and their parents trying in vain to help them. Lifeguards eventually came to their aid.
"The waves were just terrible," he said.
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. Shelters were opened in Jackson and Hancock counties, but few people were using them.
Rupert Lacy, the emergency management director in coastal Harrison County, said at least five homes were damaged there by a suspected tornado. There were no immediate reports of injuries from the wind.
In Lafitte, La., workers and residents were busy sandbagging around homes to stop water pushed up from Barataria Bay by tides and wind.
The small town, which runs along the edge of the Intracoastal Canal and the bay, was under a mandatory evacuation order, but many people ignored it.
"A few more left this morning," Jefferson Parish President John Young said. "The sheriff had to get a few people out using his high-water vehicles."
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.
On Alabama's main tourist beaches in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, officials feared Lee would dredge up mats of submerged tar from last year's BP oil spill that could be lurking in shallow water just beyond the surfline.
Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said the city hadn't received any confirmed reports of fresh oil on the beaches -- which were clean and white before the storm -- but he wouldn't be surprised if they did.
"We know it's out there, but (the storm) hasn't been that bad here. Maybe the tar mats will just stay out there," Kennon said.