Tropical Storm Claudette brings rain, floods to Gulf Coast
A weekend that was supposed to be filled with celebrations of Juneteenth and Father’s Day has turned dreary in coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, where Tropical Storm Claudette has brought wind, heavy rain and flooding to a region where some have sandbags still left over from last year’s record-breaking hurricane season.
Claudette became a tropical storm Saturday morning along the Gulf Coast, about 45 miles southwest of New Orleans, the National Hurricane Center announced in a 4 a.m. advisory.
Authorities in Alabama say a suspected tornado spurred by Claudette demolished or badly damaged at least 50 homes in a small town just north of the Florida border.
Sheriff Heath Jackson in Escambia County said a suspected tornado “pretty much leveled” a mobile home park, toppled trees onto houses and ripped the roof off a high school gym. Most of the damage was done in or near the towns of Brewton and East Brewton, about 50 miles north of Pensacola, Fla.
With coronavirus restrictions loosened and summer near, business owners across the Gulf Coast — including restaurateurs and swamp boat operators — had been anticipating an influx of tourist cash after a year of lost revenue due to the pandemic and relentless storms. But those hopes have been dimmed by the storm.
“My biggest concern is that it drives away a busy weekend, and may just end up being a lot of rain,” said Austin Sumrall, the owner and chef at the White Pillars Restaurant and Lounge in Biloxi, Miss. He had 170 reservations on his books for Sunday, but was concerned some patrons would cancel. “We saw, especially last year, the rug can get jerked out from under you pretty quickly,” he said.
Southern California’s lingering heat wave moved into its fifth day on Friday, prompting red flag warnings and another Flex Alert.
The storm was expected to dump 5 to 10 inches of rain along parts of the Gulf Coast — even 15 inches in isolated areas, according to forecasters at the hurricane center.
Early Saturday, the storm dumped heavy rain north of Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana and along the Mississippi coast, inundating streets and, in some areas, pushing water into homes.
Louisiana swamp tour boat captain Darrin Coulon spent Friday securing boats to docks, having already canceled popular weekend tours.
Dealing with tropical storms is nothing new for Coulon, who said he jokingly tells people he is from the “cone of uncertainty,” referring to a term that hurricane forecasters use.
In Louisiana, the threat came a month after spring storms and flooding that were blamed for five deaths, and as parts of the state continued a slow recovery from a brutal 2020 hurricane season. That included Tropical Storm Cristobal, which opened the season last June, hurricanes Laura and Delta that devastated southwest Louisiana, and Hurricane Zeta that downed trees and knocked out power for days in New Orleans in October.
Claudette had maximum sustained winds of 45 mph. It was moving north-northeast Saturday morning at 12 mph.
“I hope it just gets in and gets out,” said Greg Paddie, manager of Tacky Jack’s, a restaurant at Alabama’s Orange Beach.
Paddie said the restaurant still has sandbags left over from its preparations for Hurricane Sally. That September storm, blamed for two deaths, threw ships onto dry land and knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people in Alabama and in the Florida Panhandle.
Disappointment was evident in the voice of Seneca Hampton, an organizer of the Juneteenth Freedom Festival in Gautier, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He spent weeks arranging food trucks, vendors, a bounce house, face painting and free hamburgers and hot dogs for the event. It was highly anticipated because last year’s was canceled due to the pandemic and because of Juneteenth’s new designation as a federal holiday.
“It’s something that means a lot to people, and there were people that were bummed out, like, ‘I already had in my mind I was coming out there to celebrate,’” said Hampton.
The Gautier event was postponed until next month. A Juneteenth event in Selma, Ala., was postponed until August.
By Friday evening, storm clusters were dumping rain up to 4 inches an hour along parts of the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, said Benjamin Schott, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Slidell, La.
A tropical storm warning extended from Morgan City, La., to the Okaloosa-Walton county line in the Florida Panhandle.
Meanwhile, Mexico was threatened by a storm in the Pacific. Tropical Storm Dolores formed Friday with landfall expected on its west-central coast Saturday evening, possibly near hurricane strength, according to the National Hurricane Center.
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