Remnants of Lee soak South, threaten Northeast
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – Disorganized yet deadly, the leftovers from Tropical Storm Lee spread farther inland Tuesday, soaking much of the East Coast. Areas still drying out from Irene were hit with more rain while farmers in the Southeast welcomed the wet weather.
Lee spawned tornadoes that damaged hundreds of homes. Roads were flooded, trees uprooted and power was knocked out to hundreds of thousands of people. Winds from the storm had fanned wildfires in Louisiana and Texas, though calmer air Tuesday was expected to help firefighters. Lee even kicked up tar balls on the Gulf Coast.
At least four people died in the storm.
Lee formed just off the Louisiana coast late last week and gained strength as it lingered in the Gulf for a couple of days. It dumped more than a foot of rain in New Orleans, testing the city's pump system for the first time in years. The storm then trudged across Mississippi and Alabama. By Tuesday, it had collided with a cold front leaving much of the East Coast wet, with unseasonably cool temperatures.
At one point, flood watches and warnings were in effect from northeast Alabama through West Virginia to New England. Heavy rain bands scattered across the central Appalachians and Northeast. The National Weather Service said 4 to 8 inches of rain were possible, with isolated downpours up to 10 inches.
In southeast Louisiana, Red Eubanks used a floor squeegee to clean up his restaurant and bar. His parking lot had been dry — and the headquarters for Livingston Parish sheriff's deputies and their rescue boat — but the nearby Amite River slowly rose and overflowed its banks.
Water crept into the dining hall and back of Red's Restaurant and Bar. Eubanks' son and several friends put the refrigerator, freezers and salad display boxes on cinder blocks to protect them.
"This makes the fifth time I've had water in this building in 31 1/2 years," he said.
In New Jersey, where many residents were still cleaning up after Hurricane Irene, the remnants of Lee were expected to drop anywhere from 2 to 5 inches of rain. Officials were not expecting any new major flooding but they were keeping an eye on the saturated grounds and still-bulging rivers.
Much of Pennsylvania was under a flood watch, and 5 inches or more of rain were expected.
Lee's damage paled in comparison with Irene, though. At least 46 deaths were blamed on that storm, millions lost power and the damage was estimated in the billions of dollars.
Still, Lee was an unprecedented storm in some places. In Chattanooga, a 24-hour record for rainfall was set with 9.69 inches, eclipsing the previous record of 7.61 inches in March of 1886. By Tuesday, more than 10 inches of rain had fallen in the state's fourth-largest city, which had its driest August ever with barely a drop of rain.
The soggy ground meant even modest winds were toppling trees onto homes and cars. A tree fell on a Chattanooga woman while she was moving her car, killing her, said police Sgt. Jerri Weary.
In suburban Atlanta, a man died after trying to cross a swollen creek near a dam. Authorities in Alabama called off the search for a missing swimmer presumed dead in the rough Gulf waters and in Mississippi, another man drowned while trying to cross a swollen creek in a car. Two people in the car with him were saved when an alert motorist nearby tossed them a rope.
There were other rescue stories, too. At a flooded apartment complex in Fort Oglethorpe in northwest Georgia, 33 people were saved by boat, Georgia Emergency Management Agency spokesman Ken Davis said.
The American Red Cross set up a shelter for them and other residents displaced in Mississippi, where damage was reported in at least 22 counties.
In Gulf Shores, Ala., black and brown chunks of tar ranging in size from marbles to baseballs washed up on the beach. Brandon Franklin, the city's coastal claims manager, said samples would be sent to Auburn University for chemical testing to determine if the tar is from last year's BP oil spill.
Oil from the spill had soiled Gulf Coast beaches during the summer tourist season a year ago, though officials said the tar balls found so far didn't compare with the thick oil found on beaches then.
BP has sent survey teams to conduct post-storm assessments along coastal beaches to determine what may have developed on the beaches and barrier islands as a result of Lee. The oil giant is prepared to mobilize response crews to affected areas if necessary, spokesman Tom Mueller said.
Connie Harris of Alabaster, Ala., had spent the Labor Day weekend on the Gulf Shores. She 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.
In Cherokee County in northern Georgia, National Weather Service meteorologists confirmed that it was a tornado that damaged or destroyed about 400 homes. The twister was about a quarter-mile wide, with winds of around 90 mph. It traveled 24 miles on the ground, meteorologist Jessica Fieux said.
One man received minor injuries from flying debris, but otherwise no one was hurt.
Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner Ralph Hudgens toured a speedway and other neighborhoods damaged by the tornado.
"Sometimes a house would be hit, and a lot of damage," Hudgens said. "And then the next door neighbor, nothing."
The rain was a blessing for some farmers who had been forced to cut hay early and had seen their corn crop stunted by a summer drought.
"Obviously we would like to have this a while earlier," said Brant Crowder, who manages 600 acres of the McDonald Farm in the Sale Creek community north of Chattanooga. "It's been hot and dry the last two months."
Jim Kelly, who farms about 5,000 acres of cotton, peanuts and corn in southeast Alabama and northwest Florida, said the much-needed rain came a couple of weeks before the harvest will begin.
"It's pretty well rained a little everywhere," Kelly said. "I think generally we are OK. We had a lot of wind. The cotton got blown around some."
As many as 200,000 had lost power across Alabama at the height of the storm, with most of the outages in the Birmingham area, Alabama Power spokeswoman Keisa Sharpe said. Outages were also reported in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.
On the Gulf Coast, crews were out on U.S. Highway 90 trying to remove wet sand from the Biloxi Lighthouse to the Bay St. Louis Bridge and other areas. The wind-blown sand and rain from Lee prompted coastal officials to ask motorists to stay off the highway.
Meanwhile, in the open Atlantic, Hurricane Katia threatened to bring large swells to the East Coast but was not expected to make landfall in the U.S.
Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Orange Beach, Ala.; Bob Johnson in Montgomery; Ray Henry in Atlanta; Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans and Randall Dickerson in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.