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Alabama coast braces for heavy rain from Tropical Storm Lee

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By Kelli Dugan

GULF SHORES, Ala (Reuters) - People along the Alabama coast braced for up to 20 inches of rain that Tropical Storm Lee could bring their way over the Labor Day holiday weekend, but their spirits on Friday seemed impervious to the predicted soaking.

"What are we going to do? Drive home?" said Maryanne Bowman of Clarksville, Tennessee.

The eight-member Bowman clan arrived at their beachfront condo on Thursday morning, well aware of the impending storm but determined to enjoy summer's last hurrah rain or shine.

"Even in the rain, it's a vacation, and we all earned it," Bowman said.

Tropical storm warnings extended from Mississippi to Texas, and included New Orleans, which was hit by Hurricane Katrina about the same time in 2005.

Governors in Louisiana and Mississippi each declared a state of emergency, and Alabama Governor Robert Bentley placed emergency management agencies on standby should the storm cause more of a direct hit to coastal counties than expected.

"My office, along with our state emergency management agency, will continue to monitor this storm and stand ready to respond," Bentley said in a prepared statement.

Officials in Jackson County, Mississippi declared a local emergency and activated a preparation protocol that included the distribution of free sandbags across the county.

With an anticipated storm surge of three to four feet above normal, Jackson County Emergency Management Director Donald Langham urged residents in flood-prone areas to exercise caution.

"They need to stay informed," Langham said.

Joe Maniscalco, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Mobile, said the brunt of the rain most likely wouldn't affect Alabama beaches before Monday or Tuesday, but waves over the weekend could swell to seven feet or higher.

In Mobile, a fishing tournament and the city's 30th annual Labor Day parade, both slated for Monday, were canceled due to the weather. Other festivities were in limbo, including Sunday's performance of The Rock Allegiance Tour and Monday's Kid Rock show, due to be held at an outdoor amphitheater in coastal Orange Beach.

Levy Collier, 20, of Valdosta, Georgia, was enjoying the rare occurrence on Friday of waves big enough for surfing.

"I'm here for the (Kid Rock) show, but it's not like I get to surf every time I come down here. It's cool, I guess," Collier said.

Mike Foster, vice president of Gulf Shores/Orange Beach Tourism, said coastal residents and visitors should remain vigilant throughout the tropical storm, but he expected the tourist impact to be minimal.

"I think we may lose some people who decide not to come down because of the rain, but I don't expect that to be a significant number," Foster said.

"We do try to find people alternative places and things to do when there is significant rain, but most of the people who come here are just happy to be here."

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jerry Norton)