Gulf Coast preps as Ida weakens to tropical storm

A lifeguard truck displays a red flag warning of dangerous conditions due to the approach of tropical storm Ida on Pensacola Beach, Fla
A lifeguard truck displays a red flag warning of dangerous conditions due to the approach of tropical storm Ida on Pensacola Beach, Fla
PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) – Gulf Coast residents hunkered down at home and in shelters Monday as a rare late-season tropical storm headed their way, bringing with it the potential for high winds, flooding and up to 8 inches of rain in some places. After a quiet Atlantic storm season, people took the year's first serious threat in stride.

"We can ride it out right here," said T.J. Covacevich, 50, who wore a "Hurricane Hunter" T-shirt as he tied down his powerboat in a Biloxi, Miss., harbor.

Earlier, heavy rain in Ida's wake triggered flooding and landslides in El Salvador that killed 134 people.

Ida started out as the third hurricane of this year's Atlantic season, which ends Dec. 1, but weakened to a tropical storm Monday, with maximum sustained winds near 70 mph (110 kph).

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said it was expected to weaken further before making landfall along the Gulf Coast sometime Monday night or early Tuesday. Rain had already started falling in many spots by Monday afternoon.

Tropical storm warnings were in effect across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, where governors declared states of emergency.

Residents elsewhere in the Southeast braced for heavy rain. In north Georgia, which saw historic flooding in September, forecasters said up to 4 more inches could soak the already-saturated ground as Ida moved across the state.

There were no plans for mandatory evacuations, but authorities in some coastal areas opened shelters and encouraged people near the water or in mobile homes to leave. Many schools closed, and several cruise ships were delayed.

Monday afternoon, Ida was located about 60 miles (95 km) southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River and about 165 miles (265 km) south-southwest of Pensacola. It was moving north-northwest near 18 mph (30 kph).

On Pensacola Beach, Glenn Wickham stood on the roof of a three-story house, securing metal shutters as his crew moved furniture to the upper floors for a homeowner who wasn't taking any chances.

"We doing all this out of an abundance of caution — I really don't think this is going to be anything," Wickham said.

On the beach, Dan Conell took shelter in a pavilion so he could watch the churning Gulf. The Kansas City, Mo., resident, in town for a conference, was seeing the ocean for the first time.

"This is amazing," he said.

Officials planned to close bridges leading to the beach when winds picked up later Monday. Emergency yellow trucks with flashing red lights and red flags drove up and down the mostly deserted beach warning people to stay out of the water.

Florida Panhandle military bases sent nonessential personnel home early and moved aircraft inland. Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding told most employees at three shipyards in Mississippi and Louisiana to stay home.

In Robertsdale, Ala., a handful of evacuees showed up at the Baldwin County Coliseum, which had enough room to shelter 3,800 people.

Nancy Box, 68, of Gulf Shores, Ala., said she hoped the storm fizzled but did not want to chance riding it out in her elevated town house on the beach.

"They said the waves were going to be pretty high," she said. "The last time there was a storm, they came over the berm, and I don't swim."

Forecasters predicted Ida's storm surge could raise water levels 3 to 5 feet above normal.

In Louisiana and Mississippi, officials were concerned about hundreds of people still living in federally issued trailers and mobile homes after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

Fred Everhardt, a councilman in southeast Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish, was frustrated driving around and counting camper-trailers he worried would get loose and clog bayous or ram into homes elevated and rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina.

He said local officials are taking the situation seriously, but he doesn't think everyone is.

"We thought the season was over with, people are just hoping (this) just blows away, it doesn't come," he said. "When you're in parish government ... we've got to prepare for the worst and hope for the best."

Not everyone was complacent. In Navarre Beach, a few miles east of Pensacola, Roger Dick, 64, boarded up his windows and readied his generator as he and his wife prepared for their first storm as Florida residents. They moved a year ago from Ann Arbor, Mich., to a home a block from the beach.

"Neighbors are all pitching in, looking out for each other," he said. "Any storm like this, even though we're rookies, we know there's cause for concern and we've taken precautions, obviously. We're not just gonna throw our hands up and see what happens."

Still others marveled that they were dealing with a storm at all so late in the season.

"It might have been wishful thinking, but we thought hurricane season was over," said Kelby Linn, a Realtor in Dauphin Island, south of Mobile, Ala. "I have jeans on instead of shorts. That's just wrong, but we've experienced it so much, we know it's nothing to fear."


Associated Press writers Bill Kaczor in Pensacola, Suzette Laboy in Miami, Becky Bohrer in New Orleans, Dorie Turner in Atlanta, Jay Reeves in Robertsdale, Ala., Bob Johnson in Montgomery, Ala., Greg Bluestein in Dauphin Island, Ala., and Mike Kunzelman in Biloxi, Miss. contributed to this report.