Heavy rainfall and flooding mar a weekend meant to hail a return to a post-Covid normality.
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 formed on Saturday morning along the Gulf Coast, about 75 kilometres southwest of New Orleans, the National Hurricane Center announced in a 4 am advisory.
The centre of Claudette was located inland, and the storm was forecast to weaken into a depression by Saturday night.
With virus restrictions loosened and summer near, business owners across the Gulf Coast — everyone from restaurateurs to swamp boat operators — had been anticipating an influx of tourist cash after a year of lost revenue due to the coronavirus 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, Mississippi.
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.
The storm was expected to dump anywhere from 13 centimetres to 25 centimetres of rain along parts of the Gulf Coast — even 38 centimetres in isolated areas, according to forecasters at the hurricane centre.
Flash flood warnings
Flooding had already begun overnight Friday into Saturday, with local reports of high water over roads and stranded vehicles. Flash flood warnings dotted the coast while flood watches were in effect well inland for parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and central and northern Georgia.
Louisiana swamp tour boat captain Darrin Coulon spent Friday securing boats to docks, having already canceled popular weekend tours.
“I’m sure the area’s going to have some flooding,” Coulon lamented.
Dealing with tropical storms is nothing new for Coulon, who said he jokingly tells people he's from the “cone of uncertainty,” referring to a term that 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 that 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 75 kph. It was moving north-northeast Saturday morning at 19 kph.
“I hope it just gets in and gets out,” said Greg Paddie, manager of Tacky Jack’s, a restaurant at Alabama’s Orange Beach.
Juneteenth events cancelled
Paddie said the restaurant still has sandbags left over from its preparations for last year’s 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 organiser 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, Alabama, was postponed until August.
By Friday evening, storm clusters were dumping rain up to 10 centimetres an hour along parts of the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, said Benjamin Schott, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Slidell, Louisiana.
A tropical storm warning extended from Morgan City, Louisiana, to the Okaloosa-Walton County line in the Florida Panhandle.
Meanwhile, Mexico was threatened by a storm in the Pacific. Tropical Storm Dolores formed on 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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