ATLANTA — Heavy rain from the former Tropical Storm Lee rolled northeast into Appalachian states Tuesday, spreading the threat of flooding as far as New England after drenching the South, spawning tornadoes, sweeping several people away and knocking out power to thousands.
At least four people died because of the rough winds and drenching rains.
Lee also churned up heavy surf that sent tar balls washing onto Alabama’s prime tourist beaches. The globs of oil found so far were very small, Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said, and their origin was unclear.
In Gulf Shores, black and brown chunks of tar ranging from the size of marbles to nearly the size of baseballs were 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 officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Connie Harris of Alabaster, Ala., had spent the Labor Day weekend in nearby Gulf Shores and came back from a walk on the beach to find she had to scrub her feet with a wash cloth and soap.
“When we walked on the beach, we had tar on our feet,” she said.
Meanwhile, more rain was expected in parts of Tennessee that already saw precipitation records fall on Labor Day. Tornado watches covered much of North and South Carolina and flooding was forecast along the upper Potomac River and some of its tributaries in West Virginia and western Maryland.
Flood watches and warnings were in effect from northeast Alabama and Tennessee through West Virginia to upstate New York, already soaked by Irene. Rainfall amounts of 4 to 8 inches, with isolated spots up to 10 inches, were possible as heavy rain spread into the central Appalachians, the National Weather Service’s Hydrometeorological Prediction Center said.
In Georgia, officials at Fort Stewart said a lightning strike sent about 22 soldiers to the hospital Monday, with at least three kept overnight.
Fort Stewart spokesman Pat Young said the soldiers were on the post’s Donovan Field in a large tent that may have been directly hit by lightning. He said there were no initial reports of burns and 18 of the soldiers were released back to active duty Monday evening.
Rain kept falling Tuesday in Chattanooga, Tenn., which went from its driest-ever month in August with barely a drop to a record one-day deluge of 8.16 inches by 5 p.m. Monday. By dawn Tuesday, 10 inches of rain had fallen in the state’s fourth-largest city.
Numerous roads were flooded, and the soggy ground meant even modest winds were toppling trees. In Chattanooga, a tree fell onto a woman while she was moving her car, killing her, said police Sgt. Jerri Weary.
The storm system churned up treacherous waters across the South. In Mississippi, a man drowned while trying to cross a swollen creek, while authorities called off the search for a missing swimmer presumed dead off Alabama. Another man died after trying to cross a swollen creek near a dam in suburban Atlanta.
Rain in Alabama flooded numerous Birmingham roads. The storm also caused a roof to collapse at Pinson Valley High School outside Birmingham, according to The Birmingham News. No injuries were reported.
As many as 200,000 lost power across Alabama as the storm moved through, with most of the outages in the Birmingham area, Alabama Power spokeswoman Keisa Sharpe said. By early Tuesday, the number of outages was down to 187,000, she said. Power outages were also reported in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.
Chainsaws and blue tarps were coming out in Georgia neighborhoods hit by suspected twisters that ripped off siding and shingles and sent trees crashing through roofs. The Georgia Emergency Management Agency said about 100 homes were damaged in Cherokee County, about 30 miles north of Atlanta.
Mickey Swims and his wife hid in the basement of their house in Woodstock, Ga., as an apparent tornado passed.
“I heard it and saw the trees go around and around,” Swims said. “I knew when I heard it that if it touched down, it was going to be bad.”
Swims owns the Dixie Speedway, where he estimated the storm caused $500,000 worth of damage. That includes about 2,000 feet of chain-link fence uprooted from its concrete base, walls blown out of a bathroom and concession stands and tractor-trailer trucks turned into mangled messes.
Areas of Louisiana and Mississippi that bore the brunt of Lee over the weekend were also cleaning up. Lee’s center came ashore Sunday in Louisiana, dumping up to a foot of rain in parts of New Orleans and other areas. Despite some street flooding, officials said New Orleans’ 24-pump flood control system was doing its job.
Heavy rain fell in Mississippi on Monday, and a swollen creek near an apartment complex in Jackson prompted officials to move 45 families into a storm shelter. In Louisiana’s Livingston Parish, about 200 families were evacuated because of flooding.
Residents in Lee’s wake are worrying about the effects of soggy ground. Part of a levee holding back a lake in Mississippi’s Rankin County gave way, endangering some homes and a sod farm. Rankin County Road Manager George Bobo said officials could order evacuations of the few homes if the situation gets worse. The indention left by the levee slide didn’t go all the way through to the water, though.