NEW ORLEANS, La. — The center of Tropical Storm Lee made landfall on the Louisiana coast today, bringing up to a foot of rain, spinoff tornadoes and fears of inland flash flooding to the Deep South and beyond.
The vast, soggy storm system spent hours during the weekend hovering in the northernmost Gulf of Mexico. Its slow crawl to the north gave more time for its drenching rain bands to pelt a wide swath of vulnerable coastline, raising the flood threat.
By noon, at least 6 to 10 inches of rain had fallen in some spots along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, and the National Weather Service warned there was a threat of extensive flooding and flash floods because of the storm's slow, meandering jog inland.
The rain bands were expected to head northward into the Tennessee Valley later in the week as forecasters warned that 10 to 15 inches of rain were possible along the central Gulf Coast and up to 20 inches in isolated spots.
National Hurricane Center specialist Robbie Berg said the flash flood threat could be more severe as the rains moves from the flatter Gulf region north 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 by heavy rain from Hurricane Irene last week that quickly overfilled mountain rivers.
At midday Sunday, there were scattered tornado warnings for spinoff twisters from Lee.
Lynn Burse, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jackson, says the possible twister hit Lamar County, Miss., Sunday morning. No injuries or major damage was reported. Burse said drier air pivoting behind the system could increase the risk for tornados.
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. "It was crazy."
Joe Zirlott was working the overnight shift at a Citgo Speedy Mart in the Bayley's Corner community when trash cans started flying, a sign blew away, the front door popped open and the lights went out.
"Everything got real hairy for about 10 minutes, then it eased up a little," he said.
Even before Lee swept ashore, there were scattered instances of water entering low-lying homes and businesses in Louisiana's bayou country — a region of fast-eroding wetlands long vulnerable to hurricanes and tropical storms. The storm prompted evacuations in bayou towns such as Jean Lafitte. Thousands were without power.
Late Saturday, lifelong Jean Lafitte resident Brad Zinet was riding out the storm in his mobile home mounted on pilings. He was hoping it wouldn't take on water.
"We got nowhere to go. We're just getting everything put up out of the way and hope for the best," said the 31-year-old plumber.
"This is a way of life around here," he added. "You just do the best you can and ride it out."
A week after Irene caused massive flooding and claimed at least 46 lives as it barreled up the East Coast, President Barack Obama was heading to northern New Jersey later Sunday for a first-hand look at the damage while keeping an eye on Lee.
The president was to visit Paterson, N.J., where the Passaic River swept through the once-booming factory town of 150,000, flooded its downtown and forced hundreds to evacuate.
At 11 a.m. EDT, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said Lee's center was about 45 miles (72 kilometers) west of Morgan City. Maximum sustained winds were 45 mph (75 kph) as the storm headed to the north at 3 mph (5 kph).
Tropical storm warnings stretched from near the Louisiana-Texas state line to Destin, Fla.
To the east, coastal businesses were suffering. Alabama beaches that would normally be packed for the Labor Day holiday were largely empty, and rough seas closed the Port of Mobile. Mississippi's coastal casinos, however, were open and reporting brisk business.
In New Orleans, sporadic downpours caused some street flooding Saturday, but pumps were sucking up the water and sending it into Lake Pontchartrain. Officials said the levees were doing their job in the city that is still recovering from the deadly Hurricane Katrina a half decade ago.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu warned residents not to let their guard down, saying: "We're not out of the woods. Don't go to sleep on this storm."
In Mississippi, Harrison County officials said travel on U.S. Highway 90 had become hazardous because winds from Lee have pushed sand from beach onto the eastbound lanes and the rain has created a situation where drivers cannot see the roadway.
"This layer of sand has gotten up on the highway and you can't determine if you're on the road, up on the median or the curb," said emergency director Rupert Lacy.
Flooding in Hancock County left several roadways impassable, and the rain on parts of Interstate 10 at times has been so heavy that visibility was down to only a few feet.
Wet and windy conditions hovered over Alabama's Dauphin Island, a barrier island in the Gulf, but conditions weren't too threatening, Mayor Jeff Collier said. High surf caused some roads to flood, but all were still passable Saturday afternoon.
Precautions were taken to secure anything that could be swept away by wind or waves, and Labor Day concerts and other festivities were canceled.
"The weekend is literally a wash," Collier said. "It's really a shame that it happened on a holiday weekend."
Elsewhere, the National Hurricane Center said Hurricane Katia was trekking across open ocean about 365 miles northeast of the Northern Leeward Islands. No coastal watches or warnings were in effect with the storm so far out to sea.
The center said Katia had top sustained winds of 75 mph and was moving at 12 mph with little change in recent hours.
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