GULFPORT, Miss. – Tropical Storm Gordon never became a hurricane but it was deadly all the same, killing a child by blowing a tree onto a mobile home as it made landfall, officials said.
Gordon came ashore Tuesday night just west of the Alabama line. The storm later weakened to a tropical depression on Wednesday, but remained dangerous, dumping rain, spawning tornadoes and kicking up heavy surf in its wake.
The National Hurricane Center said Gordon was weakening on a path into Arkansas after striking the coast at 70 mph, just shy of hurricane strength, near Pascagoula, Mississippi. The remnants will likely cause flash flooding across parts of seven states and as far north as Iowa in the coming days.
The storm was going out swinging: Forecasters said radar spotted possible tornadoes spun off by the storm overnight in southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle, and more were possible through Wednesday night in Mississippi and western Alabama.
There were no immediate reports of injuries or significant damage, other than the child killed by a large oak tree branch that fell onto a mobile home in Pensacola, Florida.
The Escambia County Sheriff's Office posted on its Facebook page that responding deputies discovered the child had been killed. Officials haven't released the child's identity.
Escambia County received 10 calls overnight for downed trees in roadways, along with multiple reports of arcing power lines as the storm blew through with peak gusts of 61 mph. Beachgoers in the area were being warned Wednesday that it's too early to return to the water; dangerous rip currents prompted red-flag warnings, meaning it's illegal to enter the Gulf of Mexico.
Driftwood and other debris made for hazardous driving early Wednesday on the causeway to Dauphin Island, Alabama, which was partly flooded by seawater overnight, leaving people to drive over sand and around lawn furniture on the main road. Siding was peeled off some houses, but Mayor Jeff Collier said "for the most part, we did OK."
The center predicted total rain amounts of 4-8 inches in the Florida panhandle and parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa and Illinois. Rainfall could be even more intense in isolated places, dropping up to 12 inches through early Saturday.
A storm surge covered barrier islands as the storm blew through, and some inland roadways were flooded by the rain. The National Weather Service in Mobile cautioned that the Styx River near Elsanor, Alabama, could reach moderate, and possibly major, flood stage later Wednesday.
More than 27,000 customers were without power as Gordon began pushing ashore, mostly in coastal Alabama and the western tip of the Florida Panhandle around Pensacola, with a few hundred in southeastern Mississippi. Crews were already restoring electricity early Wednesday.
Preparing for the storm
Governors in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana all declared states of emergency to better mobilize state resources and National Guard troops for the storm.
Mississippi shut down a dozen Gulf Coast casinos, which were given permission to reopen Wednesday.
Workers on at least 54 oil and gas production platforms were evacuated.
Communities along the coast provided sand and bags, and many hustled to protect their properties ahead of the storm. New Orleans braced for flooding, but in the end got only a glancing blow.
Gulfport was among communities providing sand and bags to residents, and Kenny MacDonald filled them for himself and older residents. MacDonald said that while such preparations become all too routine, one must remain wary.
"You don't know what the intensity of the storm is going to be. You don't want to take it lightly, of course," MacDonald said.
Just hours before the storm was expected to come ashore, a few people remained on the beach, soaking in the sun before the tropical rain bands became more numerous.
“At first, it’s excitement, but as it starts getting serious, you start getting more scared and apprehensive and everything," Gulfport resident Tommy Wittman said.
Just after 5 p.m. Tuesday, the Wittman family took a stroll along the shoreline before the storm's arrival.
Dana Wittman added, “We’re watching the news. We know what to expect. Everybody got their food and water.”
The Wittmans said that while some people are taking the storm seriously, they’ve talked to others who are not too worried because they don't foresee the kind of damages they experienced in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina swept through the area as a Category 3 storm.
“If it was a higher number, we would be nervous because we spent weeks and weeks after Katrina just cleaning up and trying to get our lives back together," Dana Wittman said. "We stood in gas lines. We stood in food lines and water lines.”
By late Tuesday afternoon, most businesses in Gulfport closed early so that employees could get home in time for a 7 p.m. mandatory curfew.
Sandbags could be seen in front of the doors of businesses, many of which didn't reopen until late Wednesday afternoon.
Schools in the Gulfport area remained closed through Wednesday.
Marinas evacuated ahead of Gordon
Boaters scrambled to get their vessels out of the water as the Gulf Coast prepared Tuesday for Gordon.
Mandatory boat evacuations were issued at Gulfport Marina and at Long Beach Harbor. Most of the boats at Gulfport Marina were removed, however, a handful of vessels that were inoperable remained.
George Holloman spent most of the day helping boat owners relocate their vessels to safer waters. He said sailboats have been the hardest to relocate because some of them don’t have motors.
“We try to bring them around and put them on a trailer and take them around the back of the bay," Holloman said. "A lot of times, we’re fighting the wind because it’s so close to storm time. It’s harder to deal with them because they don’t have any buoyancy. They’re like a spicate, they just run back and forth in the wind.”
Holloman said people were worried about Gordon.
“I stopped at McDonald’s earlier and the older people there are saying they hope it’s not another Katrina," he said. "They’re worried about ... being able to go back to their homes."
Jim Boergenge moved his sailboat Monday afternoon, but he was worried about his friend's boat.
"It’s not capable of being moved right now because of an engine problem," Boergenge said. "The red lines are spring lines to keep the boat from moving too far forward or too far back. All the lines you see here are slacked enough so when a surge of 5 feet comes in, or 6 feet, it will be OK because it will rise with the water.”
Members of the U.S. Geological Survey could be seen Tuesday planting small black devices, which will measure and record storm surge, on the dock.