September 3, 2011 10:51:00 PM
JACKSON -- The Mississippi coast braced Saturday as squalls from the eastern edge of Tropical Storm Lee swept in, bringing heavy rain and sparking sporadic tornado warnings.
Officials urged motorists to either stay home or take precautions if out in the heavy rainfall associated with Lee, especially along U.S. Highway 90.
The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning through Monday for south Mississippi and large areas of central Mississippi. Tornado watches and warnings were issued across the coast.
The sluggish storm stalled just offshore Louisiana for several hours before resuming its slow march northward late in the afternoon. The storm threatened to dump more than a foot of rain across the Gulf Coast and into the Southeast in coming days. Its slow pace means the clouds will have more time to drop rain on cities in their path.
In Jackson, Harrison and Hancock counties, officials said the worst of the storm should hit their areas as Lee comes ashore since the worst of its storms were banding into the coast well east of the center.
"We''ve been getting some pretty good onshore rains," said Jackson County emergency director Donald Langham.
Langham said when the storm hooks to the east then winds and rains would increase.
He said the worst weather should occur sometime on Sunday. Rain could continue through Wednesday. He said several roads south of Highway 90 in low-lying areas were closed.
Harrison County officials said travel on U.S. Highway 90 had become hazardous because winds from Lee pushed sand from beaches onto the road and heavy rain was cutting driver visibility.
"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. "We''re asking folks not to get on Highway 90 but if they do be extra careful."
Lacy said officials hoped to get crews out as soon as possible to clean the highway.
Lacy said officials expected to see more flooding early Sunday.
"Our major flooding occurs in the wee hours of the morning when we have high tide," Lacy said.
Flooding in Hancock County left several roadways impassable, and rain on parts of Interstate 10 at times has been so heavy that visibility was down to only a few feet.
But Lee wasn''t spoiling the labor Day weekend for every business on the tourism-dependent coast.
Coastal casinos remained open and reported brisk business.
At the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, which was hosting an IBF welterweight title bout Saturday night, resort spokeswoman Mary Cracchiolo-Spain said business was going on as usual.
"We''re open for business and we are safe and secure. We are watching the storm closely like everybody else,"'' she said.
Officials in the three coast counties -- Hancock, Harrison and Jackson -- said low-lying areas that historically flood during heavy rains were doing the same Saturday -- that included some homes and streets.
The National Weather Service said South Mississippi is expected to see sustained winds of 35-45 mph with gusts up to 60 mph and 10 to 15 inches of rain over several days. The storm could push tides 2 to 5 feet higher than normal. High tide was expected to occur early Sunday, between 1 and 2 a.m.
"We have been anticipating this," said Harrison County''s Lacy. "We''re expecting a 2-1/2 foot tidal surge Sunday morning. With that we''ll see some more water come up."
"We''re looking at a thing that is not getting any better," said Langham. "We''re gearing up for the heavier rains and winds. We''re hoping that people will stay off the roads ... find something to do inside."
Hancock County Emergency Management director Brian Adams said low-lying areas are under a voluntary evacuation.
"We''ve got a lot of street flooding in those areas ... we''re trying to keep people out of the low-lying areas," said Adams, who said the beachfront road was flooded.
County spokesman Ken Flanagan said there was debris around Ocean Springs Harbor.
"So you could tell it (tide) was running well above usual," Flanagan said. "All sorts of straw, dirt and grass got washed up over the Ocean Springs finger pier decking."
A shelter was opened in Kiln on Friday night on Mississippi Highway 43. No other shelters were opened Saturday.
Pete LaRose, manager at Home Depot in Gulfport, said people had begun Friday stocking up on storm supplies such as tarps, plastic sheeting and bottled water, but not in a typical pre-hurricane swarm. He said his shelves are stocked with emergency supplies. He expects more shoppers as the storm nears.
Gov. Haley Barbour on Friday declared a state of emergency for seven southern counties as forecasters upgraded the system to a tropical storm. Lee was the 12th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season. Local counties and cities issued states of emergency as well.
Barbour urged residents to start taking steps as soon as possible to protect family and property.
Later Friday, the city of Biloxi declared a state of emergency as well, and Mayor A.J. Holloway is encouraging residents to begin preparing for the storm''s arrival. The City Council voted late Friday to authorize the order, which gives the mayor broader authority in dealing with the storm. It is also one of the benchmarks required in determining any storm-related expenses that could be reimbursed by the federal government.
City officials said Biloxi remains under a state of emergency from 2005''s Hurricane Katrina since the city is still using temporary wastewater pumps at several beachfront locations.
Power companies reported they were ramping up operations.
"Crews have been assigned critical areas and trucks and materials are ready to respond quickly," said Lorri Freeman, communications manager for Singing River Electric Power Association.
Mississippi Power spokeswoman Cindy Duvall said crews and equipment both here and at sister companies in Alabama and Georgia are on standby and "ready to roll" should assistance be needed to restore power and downed lines.