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. 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 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 west-northwest of McComb, Miss., and moving east-northeast at 7 mph.
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: “I laid on top of her to try to protect her. It all happened so quickly I couldn’t do anything else.”
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 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.