Lee weakens to depression with 35 mph winds

SAUCIER, Miss. (AP) - 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
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
"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.
Associated Press contributing to this report were: Mary Foster
and Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans; Holbrook Mohr in Jackson,
Miss.; and Greg Bluestein in Atlanta.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)