Gulf Coast residents brace for Tropical Storm Karen; hurricane watch in place from Fla. to La.

  • Article by: KEVIN MCGILL , Associated Press
  • Updated: October 3, 2013 - 10:05 PM

NEW ORLEANS — From a tiny, vulnerable island off the Louisiana coast to the beaches of the Florida Panhandle, Gulf Coast residents prepared Thursday for a possible hit from Tropical Storm Karen, which threatened to become the first named tropical system to menace the United States this year.

Karen was forecast to lash the northern Gulf Coast over the weekend as a weak hurricane or tropical storm. A hurricane watch was in effect from Grand Isle, La., to west of Destin, Fla. A tropical storm warning was issued for the Louisiana coast from Grand Isle to the mouth of the Pearl River, including the New Orleans area.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said late Thursday that Karen was about 340 miles (547 kilometers) south of the mouth of the Mississippi River and had maximum sustained winds of 65 mph (100 kph) with higher gusts. The storm was moving north-northwest at 10 mph (16 kph). It could be at or near hurricane strength late Friday and early Saturday, forecasters said, with the center near the coast on Saturday.

In Alabama, safety workers on Thursday hoisted double red flags at Gulf Shores because of treacherous rip currents ahead of the storm.

In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency, urging residents to prepare. State Emergency Management Agency Director Robert Latham said local schools will decide whether to play football games. He said the southern part of the state could have tropical storm-force winds by late Friday.

"I know that Friday night football in the South is a big thing, but I don't think anybody wants to risk a life because of the potential winds," Latham said.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal also declared a state of emergency, citing the possibility of high winds, heavy rain and tides. Florida Gov. Rick Scott also declared an emergency for 18 counties.

The Army Corps of Engineers said it was closing a structure intended to keep storm surge out of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal in Louisiana — known locally as the Industrial Canal — where levee breaches during Hurricane Katrina led to catastrophic flooding in 2005.

Mayor David Camardelle of Grand Isle, La., an inhabited barrier island and tourist town about 60 miles south of New Orleans, called for voluntary evacuations as he declared an emergency Thursday afternoon.

Louisiana officials were taking precautions while noting that forecasts show the storm veering to the east. The storm track had it likely brushing the southeastern tip of the state before heading toward the Alabama-Florida coast. And it was moving faster than last year's Hurricane Isaac, a weak storm that stalled over the area and caused widespread flooding.

"It should make that fork right and move out very, very quickly," said Jerry Sneed, head of New Orleans' emergency preparedness office.

Offshore, at least two oil companies said they were evacuating non-essential personnel and securing rigs and platforms.

In Washington, the White House said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was recalling some workers furloughed due to the government shutdown to prepare for the storm.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama was being updated about the storm. He said Obama directed his team to ensure staffing and resources are available to respond to the storm.

Hundreds of thousands of federal workers have been furloughed under the partial government shutdown. It's unclear how many FEMA workers are being brought back.

In Mexico's Caribbean coast state of Quintana, the brief passage of Karen before the storm moved north caused authorities to close seaports and some schools, but little rain was actually reported.

A few fishing camps and small hamlets along the coast were ordered evacuated late Wednesday, and some boat services were suspended for the estimated 35,000 tourists currently in Cancun. But the head of the Cancun Hotel Association, Roberto Cintron, said tourists appeared to be taking it in stride.

While meteorologists said it was too soon to predict the storm's ultimate intensity, they said it could weaken a bit as it approaches the coast over the weekend.

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