NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Tropical Storm Cristobal lashed the northern Gulf Coast with high winds and drenching rain Sunday, heading toward a Louisiana landfall while swamping roads in Mississippi, prompting tornado watches in Alabama and spinning off a twister that uprooted trees in Florida.
Residents of waterside communities outside the New Orleans levee system — bounded by lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne — were urged to evacuate Sunday afternoon because of their vulnerability to an expected storm surge.
Water swamped the only road to Grand Isle — the resort barrier island community south of New Orleans where a mandatory evacuation took effect Saturday. It was a similar story in low-lying parts of Plaquemines Parish at the state’s southeastern tip, said shrimper Acy Cooper. “You can’t go down there by car,” he said Sunday of one marina in the area. “You have to go by boat.”
Cristobal packed top sustained winds of 50 miles per hour (85 kph) winds nearing the coast but was not expected to reach hurricane strength. Forecasters warned, however, that the storm would affect a wide area stretching roughly 180 miles (290 kilometers).
Sen. John Kennedy said in a news release that President Donald Trump agreed to issue an emergency declaration for Louisiana as the storm approached the coast. Gov. John Bel Edwards had issued a state emergency declaration Thursday.
In Florida, a tornado — the second in two days in the state as the storm approached — touched down about 3:35 p.m. south of Lake City near Interstate 75, said meteorologist Kirsten Chaney in the weather service’s Jacksonville office. There were no immediate reports of injuries. The storm splintered and uprooted trees and downed power lines.
Rain fell intermittently in New Orleans famed French Quarter on Sunday afternoon, but the streets were nearly deserted, with many businesses already boarded up due to the coronavirus.
Daniel Priestman said he didn’t see people frantically stocking up as he did before other storms. He said people may be “overwhelmed” by the coronavirus and recent police violence and protests.
They seemed “resigned to whatever happens – happens,” he said.
At one New Orleans intersection, a handmade “Black Lives Matter” sign, wired to a lampost, rattled in a stiff wind as the crew of a massive vacuum truck worked to unclog a nearby storm drain.
About 4 p.m. local time Sunday, the storm was centered about 65 miles (100 kilometers) south of New Orleans. Cristobal was moving north at 7 mph (11 kph). With an expected landfall looming in Louisiana, tropical storm warnings stretched from Intracoastal City in Louisiana to the Okaloosa-Walton County line in Florida, the National Hurricane Center said.
Forecasters said some parts of Louisiana and Mississippi were in danger of as much as a foot (30 centimeters) of rain, with storm surges of up to five feet (1.5 meters).
“It’s very efficient, very tropical rainfall,” National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said in a Facebook video. “It rains a whole bunch real quick.”
The Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans said the city’s aging street drainage system had limits, so residents should avoid underpasses and low-lying areas where water can pool during inevitable street flooding.
Much of Grand Isle wasn’t passable, Jefferson Parish Councilman Ricky Templet told The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate.
Templet planned to stay on the island during the storm and said he hadn’t seen water levels this high since a 2012 hurricane.
The Louisiana National Guard had dozens of high-water vehicles and rescue boats ready to go across south Louisiana. Three teams of engineers were also available to help assess potential infrastructure failures, the Guard said in a news release.
In Biloxi, Mississippi, a pier was almost submerged by Sunday morning. Squalls with tropical-force winds had reached the mouth of the Mississippi River and conditions were expected to deteriorate, the hurricane center in Miami said.
Jefferson Parish, a suburb of New Orleans, called for voluntary evacuations Saturday of Jean Lafitte, Lower Lafitte, Crown Point and Barataria because of the threat of storm surge, high tides and heavy rain. Residents were urged to move vehicles, boats and campers to higher ground.
A similar order was issued for several Plaquemines Parish communities. The parish’s president, Kirk Lepine, said the order was issued as a precaution.
On Saturday evening, a tornado touched down near downtown Orlando, Florida, the National Weather Service said. The twister just missed a group of protesters at Lake Eola. There appeared to be no injuries, but tree limbs were knocked down, and power outages were reported.
Associated Press reporter Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Florida, contributed to this report.