CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. » As the leftovers from Tropical Storm Lee brought welcome wet weather to farmers in the Southeast, many areas of the East Coast were getting soaked Wednesday, bringing new concerns about flooding.
Tornadoes spawned by Lee damaged hundreds of homes, and flooding knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people. Trees were uprooted and roads were flooded. Winds from the storm fanned wildfires in Louisiana and Texas. Lee even kicked up tar balls on the Gulf Coast.
At least four people died in the storm.
Lee was moving north, bringing heavy rain along with it. Flood warnings were in effect Wednesday and Thursday for much of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Flood watches have been issued for water-logged eastern New York.
Rising waters of a rain-swollen creek forced the evacuation of residents in the northeastern Pennsylvania city of Wilkes-Barre early Wednesday morning.
Officials ordered the mandatory evacuation of about 3,000 residents. Rain from Irene also prompted evacuations there two Sundays ago.
In New Jersey, major flooding was forecast for the Passaic River, which breached its banks during Irene and caused serious damage in some communities.
Lee formed just off the Louisiana coast late last week and gained strength as it lingered in the Gulf for a couple of days. It dumped more than a foot of rain in New Orleans, testing the city’s pump system for the first time in years. The storm then trudged across Mississippi and Alabama. By Tuesday, it had collided with a cold front leaving much of the East Coast wet, with unseasonably cool temperatures.
At one point, flood watches and warnings were in effect from northeast Alabama through West Virginia to New England.
In southeast Louisiana, Red Eubanks used a floor squeegee to clean up his restaurant and bar. His parking lot had been dry — and the headquarters for Livingston Parish sheriff’s deputies and their rescue boat — but the nearby Amite River slowly rose and overflowed its banks.
Water crept into the dining hall and back of Red’s Restaurant and Bar. Eubanks’ son and several friends put the refrigerator, freezers and salad display boxes on cinder blocks to protect them.
"This makes the fifth time I’ve had water in this building in 31 1/2 years," he said.
In New Jersey, where many residents were still cleaning up after Hurricane Irene, the remnants of Lee were expected to drop anywhere from 2 to 5 inches of rain. Major flooding was forecast on Wednesday for the Passaic River, which breached its banks during Irene and caused serious damage in some communities.
On New York’s Long Island, heavy rain and winds knocked out power to more than 9,000 utility customers for several hours on Tuesday. But Lee’s damage paled in comparison with Irene. At least 46 deaths were blamed on that storm, millions lost power and the damage was estimated in the billions of dollars.
Still, Lee was an unprecedented storm in some places. In Chattanooga, a 24-hour record for rainfall was set with 9.69 inches, eclipsing the previous record of 7.61 inches in March of 1886. By Tuesday, more than 10 inches of rain had fallen in the state’s fourth-largest city, which had its driest August ever with barely a drop of rain.
The soggy ground meant even modest winds were toppling trees onto homes and cars. A tree fell on a Chattanooga woman while she was moving her car, killing her, said police Sgt. Jerri Weary.
In suburban Atlanta, a man died after trying to cross a swollen creek near a dam. Authorities in Alabama called off the search for a missing swimmer presumed dead in the rough Gulf waters and in Mississippi, another man drowned while trying to cross a swollen creek in a car. Two people in the car with him were saved when an alert motorist nearby tossed them a rope.
There were other rescue stories, too. At a flooded apartment complex in Fort Oglethorpe in northwest Georgia, 33 people were saved by boat, Georgia Emergency Management Agency spokesman Ken Davis said.
The American Red Cross set up a shelter for them and other residents displaced in Mississippi, where damage was reported in at least 22 counties.
In Gulf Shores, Ala., black and brown chunks of tar ranging in size from marbles to baseballs washed up on the beach. Brandon Franklin, the city’s coastal claims manager, said samples would be sent to Auburn University for chemical testing to determine if the tar is from last year’s BP oil spill.
Oil from the spill had soiled Gulf Coast beaches during the summer tourist season a year ago, though officials said the tar balls found so far didn’t compare with the thick oil found on beaches then.
BP has sent survey teams to conduct post-storm assessments along coastal beaches to determine what may have developed on the beaches and barrier islands as a result of Lee. The oil giant is prepared to mobilize response crews to affected areas if necessary, spokesman Tom Mueller said.
In Cherokee County in northern Georgia, National Weather Service meteorologists confirmed that it was a tornado that damaged or destroyed about 400 homes. The twister was about a quarter-mile wide, with winds of around 90 mph. It traveled 24 miles on the ground, meteorologist Jessica Fieux said.
One man received minor injuries from flying debris, but otherwise no one was hurt.
Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner Ralph Hudgens toured a speedway and other neighborhoods damaged by the tornado.
"Sometimes a house would be hit, and a lot of damage," Hudgens said. "And then the next door neighbor, nothing."
The rain was a blessing for some farmers who had been forced to cut hay early and had seen their corn crop stunted by a summer drought.
"Obviously we would like to have this a while earlier," said Brant Crowder, who manages 600 acres of the McDonald Farm in the Sale Creek community north of Chattanooga. "It’s been hot and dry the last two months."
As many as 200,000 had lost power across Alabama at the height of the storm, with most of the outages in the Birmingham area, Alabama Power spokeswoman Keisa Sharpe said. Outages were also reported in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.
Meanwhile, in the open Atlantic, Hurricane Katia threatened to bring large swells to the East Coast but was not expected to make landfall in the U.S.