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.
ATLANTA -- Heavy rain from the former Tropical Storm Lee rolled northeast into Appalachian states Tuesday, spreading the threat of flooding as far as New England after drenching the South, spawning tornadoes, sweeping several people away and knocking out power to thousands.
Meanwhile, officials in coastal Alabama were trying to determine the origin of tar balls that had washed onto the state's prime tourist beaches. Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said Tuesday that the tar balls reported so far are very small. He said the surf churned up by Lee was the heaviest he had seen since tar balls were washing up on the beach in 2010 because of the BP oil spill.
It was not clear where the tar balls came from. BP officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Connie Harris of Alabaster, Ala., had spent the Labor Day weekend in nearby Gulf Shores and came back from a walk on the beach to find she had to scrub her feet with a wash cloth and soap.
"When we walked on the beach, we had tar on our feet," she said.
Elsewhere, more rain was expected in parts of Tennessee that already saw precipitation records fall on Labor Day. Tornado watches covered much of North and South Carolina and flooding was forecast along the upper Potomac River and some of its tributaries in West Virginia and western Maryland.
Flood watches and warnings were in effect from northeast Alabama and Tennessee through West Virginia to upstate New York, already soaked by Irene. Rainfall amounts of 4 to 8 inches, with isolated spots up to 10 inches, were possible as heavy rain spread into the central Appalachians, the National Weather Service's Hydrometeorological Prediction Center said.
In Georgia, officials at Fort Stewart said a lightning strike sent about 22 soldiers to the hospital Monday, with at least three kept overnight.
Fort Stewart spokesman Pat Young said the soldiers were on the post's Donovan Field in a large tent that may have been directly hit by lightning. He said there were no initial reports of burns and 18 of the soldiers were released back to active duty Monday evening.
Rain kept falling Tuesday in Chattanooga, Tenn., which went from its driest-ever month in August with barely a drop to a record one-day deluge of 8.16 inches by 5 p.m. Monday. By dawn Tuesday, 10 inches of rain had fallen in the state's fourth-largest city.
Numerous roads were flooded, and the soggy ground meant even modest winds were toppling trees.
"We have had problems with trees coming down, mainly because the soil is so saturated with water," said National Weather Service forecaster David Gaffin in Morristown, Tenn.
Rain in Alabama flooded numerous Birmingham roads. The storm also caused a roof to collapse at Pinson Valley High School outside Birmingham, according to The Birmingham News. No injuries were reported.
As many as 200,000 lost power across Alabama as the storm moved through, with most of the outages in the Birmingham area, Alabama Power spokeswoman Keisa Sharpe said. By early Tuesday, the number of outages was down to 187,000, she said. Power outages were also reported in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.
The storm system churned up treacherous waters across the South. In Mississippi, a man drowned while trying to cross a swollen creek, while authorities called off the search for a missing swimmer presumed dead off Alabama. Another man was missing after trying to cross a creek in suburban Atlanta.
Chainsaws and blue tarps were coming out in Georgia neighborhoods hit by suspected twisters that ripped off siding and shingles and sent trees crashing through roofs. The Georgia Emergency Management Agency said about 100 homes were damaged there in Cherokee County, about 30 miles north of Atlanta.
To the southeast in Norcross, a man was swept away when he tried to cross a swollen creek between apartment complexes, Gwinnett County Fire Battalion Chief Dan Rowland said. The search was called off at nightfall, and body recovery operations were going to start Tuesday morning. A companion to the missing man was caught in the creek but managed to make it out of the water.
Mickey Swims and his wife hid in the basement of their house in Woodstock, Ga., as an apparent tornado passed.
"I heard it and saw the trees go around and around," Swims said. "I knew when I heard it that if it touched down, it was going to be bad."
Swims owns the Dixie Speedway, where he estimated the storm caused $500,000 worth of damage. That includes about 2,000 feet of chain-link fence uprooted from its concrete base, walls blown out of a bathroom and concession stands and tractor-trailer trucks turned into mangled messes.
Areas of Louisiana and Mississippi that bore the brunt of Lee over the weekend were also digging out. Lee's center came ashore Sunday in Louisiana, dumping up to a foot of rain in parts of New Orleans and other areas. Despite some street flooding, officials said New Orleans' 24-pump flood control system was doing its job.
Heavy rain fell in Mississippi on Monday, and a swollen creek near an apartment complex in Jackson prompted officials to move 45 families into a storm shelter. In Louisiana's Livingston Parish, about 200 families were evacuated because of flooding.
The man who died in Mississippi, 57-year-old John Howard Anderson Jr., had been in a car with two other people trying to cross a rain-swollen creek Sunday night. Tishomingo County Coroner Mack Wilemon said Anderson was outside of the car and couldn't hold onto a rope thrown by a would-be rescuer.
Residents in Lee's wake are worrying about the effects of soggy ground. Part of a levee holding back a lake in Mississippi's Rankin County gave way, endangering some homes and a sod farm. Rankin County Road Manager George Bobo said officials could order evacuations of the few homes if the situation gets worse. The indention left by the levee slide didn't go all the way through to the water, though.
In Gulf Shores, Ala., surf churned up by the storm proved treacherous. The Coast Guard suspended its search