Ida weakens to tropical storm

November 9, 2009 8:30:25 AM PST
Schools closed, residents of low-lying areas sought shelter and Florida's governor declared a state of emergency Monday as a rare late-season tropical storm churned toward the Gulf Coast.

After a quiet Atlantic storm season, residents from Louisiana east to Florida took the year's first serious threat in stride.

"Even though we're telling everybody to be prepared, my gut tells me it probably won't be that bad," said Steve Arndt, director of Bay Point Marina Co. in Panama City, Fla.

Earlier, heavy rain in Ida's wake triggered flooding and landslides in El Salvador that killed 124 people. One mudslide covered the town of Verapaz, about 30 miles outside the capital, San Salvador, before dawn Sunday.

Ida started out as the third hurricane of this year's Atlantic season, which ends Dec. 1, but it weakened to a tropical storm Monday morning, with maximum sustained winds near 70 mph. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said it was expected to weaken further before making landfall along the U.S. Gulf Coast sometime Tuesday morning.

Tropical storm warnings were in effect across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Residents elsewhere in the Southeast braced for heavy rain. In north Georgia, which saw historic flooding in September, forecasters said up to four more inches could soak the already-saturated ground as Ida moved across the state.

There were no immediate plans for mandatory evacuations, but authorities in some coastal areas were opening shelters and encouraging people near the water or in mobile homes to leave.

Monday morning, Ida was located about 185 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River and about 285 miles south-southwest of Pensacola. It was moving north-northwest near 17 mph.

The normally tranquil turquoise waves and white sands of Pensacola Beach turned an angry frothy white and the skies were a dark gray. Winds picked up throughout the night and emergency officials encouraged evacuations from the beach and low-lying areas of Florida's westernmost county. People living in mobile homes farther inland were also encouraged to leave.

Sheriff's cruisers blocked the entrance to the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Red flags flew along the beach and signs were posted warning people to stay out of the dangerous Gulf waters.

Officials were encouraging residents to prepare for potential gusts of 60 mph by removing tree limbs that could damage their homes and securing or bringing in any trash cans, grills, potted plants or patio furniture.

School was canceled in the area Monday and Tuesday, and some schools around New Orleans and in Alabama also told students to stay home Monday.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency as a precaution Sunday, and the National Guard was on high alert.

Nearly 1,400 Louisiana residents are still living in federally issued trailers and mobile homes after hurricanes Katrina and Rita; nearly 360 units remain in Mississippi.

Louisiana closed state offices Monday in New Orleans, the barrier island town of Grand Isle and the vulnerable coastal parishes of Lafourche, Plaquemines and St. Bernard. A voluntary evacuation of low-lying areas of Plaquemines and St. Bernard was in effect.

Authorities hoped the storm would stay east of the Louisiana coast as forecast and the state would suffer no more than relatively mild flooding of low-lying coastal areas unprotected by levees.

"We'll complete the drill just to make sure we don't get caught with some unexpected change," said St. Bernard Parish President Craig Tafarro.

Mississippi authorities warned residents to be vigilant.

"It is likely we will at least be hit with strong winds and some flooding in our coastal counties," said Jeff Rent, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. Officials "do not want anybody to be caught off guard."

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Associated Press writers Suzette Laboy in Miami, Becky Bohrer in New Orleans and Dorie Turner in Atlanta contributed to this report.


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