NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Thunderstorms and high winds on the east side of Tropical Storm Claudette battered the Florida panhandle and much of Alabama on Saturday, as the weather system moved toward the North Carolina coast.
The National Hurricane Center declared Claudette organized enough to qualify as a named storm at 4 a.m. Saturday, well after the storm’s center of circulation had come ashore southwest of New Orleans. By mid-morning it was 75 miles (120 kilometers) north-northeast of the city with winds clocked at 40 mph (65 kph). It was moving north-northeast at 14 mph (22 kph), and most of the heavy weather was happening far to the north and east of the center.
After dumping flooding rains north of Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana and along the Mississippi coast, the storm was inundating the Florida panhandle and, well inland, a broad expanse of Alabama. The National Weather Service issued a series of possible tornado warnings Saturday morning in north Florida and south Alabama.
Parts of inland Mississippi and Georgia were getting heavy rain from Claudette as well. And even though the storm was weakening, the National Hurricane Center issued a tropical storm watch for parts of the North Carolina coast, which could feel the effects by Sunday night. The storm was forecast to cross into the Atlantic Ocean on Monday, and regain tropical storm strength over open water Tuesday.
Residents of Pace, Florida, called 911 to report a possible twister that tore the roofs off two homes and damaged at least three others.
“Nobody’s hurt,” said Sarah Whitfield, spokeswoman for Santa Rosa County, where the Florida homes were damaged. “We’re just thankful it happened after sunrise,” not overnight as people slept.
An 18-wheeler hit several utility poles and flipped on its side during the storm early Saturday. Debris from the accident, including a collapsed utility pole, turned into projectiles and struck a passing SUV, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
The accident report said wind gusts of 85 mph were clocked in the area. Highway Patrol officials were to close both lanes of the Interstate 10 bridge between Escambia and Santa Rosa counties due to high winds.
The county received two calls about trees falling onto homes, but no one was home at the time.
“We’re seeing a few roads flooding with some high waters,” said Escambia County Spokeswoman Laura Coale, who said some cars had been stranded.
The storm left tens of thousands without power and some flights were being cancelled or delayed at Pensacola International Airport.
“We have a lot of visitors that are here vacationing,” she said. “Red flags flying out at the beaches so there’s absolutely no swimming.”
In Alabama, possible tornadoes damaged a fishing pier near Dauphin Island and flipped a mobile home near Brewton, said Jason Beaman, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Mobile.
Forecasters said Claudette could dump 5 to 10 inches (12 to 25 centimeters) of rain in the region, with isolated accumulations of 15 inches (38 centimeters) possible.
“We’ve got little squalls running through. It’ll rain really really hard for a few minutes and slack up for a few minutes,” said Glen Brannan of the Mobile County, Alabama, Emergency Management Agency early Saturday. “Just a lot of water on the roads.”
Residents of Slidell, Louisiana, north of Lake Pontchartrain, reported flooded streets and water in some neighborhoods as the storm pushed onshore overnight. Slidell police said the flooding had largely receded by daybreak, after swamping as many as 50 cars and trucks with water.
Most people riding out the storm still had electricity when they woke up Saturday morning. The website poweroutage.us reported roughly 22,000 outages total across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Beaman of the National Weather Service warned swimmers to beware that treacherous surf would remain a threat along area beaches for several days.
The storm struck on a weekend when many on the Gulf Coast planned to celebrate Juneteenth and Father’s Day.
Business owners across the Gulf Coast, from restaurateurs to swamp boat operators, had anticipated an influx of tourist cash after a year of lost revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“My biggest concern is that it drives away a busy weekend, and may just end up being a lot of rain,” Austin Sumrall, the owner and chef at the White Pillars Restaurant and Lounge in Biloxi, Mississippi, said Friday.
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.
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.
Separately, Tropical Storm Dolores made landfall on Mexico’s west coast with near-hurricane force. The storm’s center was located about 50 miles (75 kilometers) southeast of Manzanillo, Mexico, a city of about 160,000 people. Its maximum sustained winds were clocked at 70 mph (110 kph), and it was moving north-northwest at 13 mph (20 kph).
Heavy rainfall of six to 10 inches (about 15 to 25 centimeters) was expected across the southwest and western coastal areas of Mexico throughout the weekend. Forecasters were warning of the potential for flash flooding and mudslides.
Bynum reported from Savannah, Georgia.