Thankfully, tropical storm Lee has so far proven to be less of a weather monster than a Labor Day washout, its rains bringing relief to a longstanding drought in southern Louisiana and quenching a marsh fire that had blanketed metro New Orleans with smoke and sent scores of residents to local hospitals.
While the storm closed Grand Isle and other Gulf beaches for the holiday weekend – a blow to coastal areas that are still recovering from the economic disaster of last year’s BP oil spill – New Orleans’ French Quarter remained busy Sunday afternoon, with poncho-draped visitors venturing out between bands of rainfall.
Southern Decadence, an annual Labor Day gay pride event that usually draws over 100,000 visitors, went on as planned with a beauty contest and walking parade down Royal Street.
“This is usually our busiest weekend of the year and this year is no exception,” said Wendi Salciccia of Bijou Nola, a jewelry shop just off of Royal Street. “Katrina happened on this same weekend, and people here are justifiably nervous about watching a storm in the Gulf, but that’s life in New Orleans. You don’t get used to it, you just learn to roll with it.”
A few blocks down Rampart Street in the city’s Treme neighborhood, however, the Black Men of Labor – one of the city’s oldest Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs – canceled its annual second line parade, the season’s largest, and rescheduled for Halloween.
Tropical storm Lee capped an unpleasant weather week for the New Orleans area, with triple digit heat indexes and a wildfire in New Orleans East that burned over 1,000 acres of marshland, prompting smoke alerts in six suburban parishes. The haze reached as far west as Baton Rouge and reduced visibility in the French Quarter to two city blocks.
The emergency department at the Interim LSU Public Hospital in New Orleans, which usually treats four or five patients a day for asthma, treated 24 patients with breathing problems in 24 hours last Wednesday and Thursday.
State fire officials reported this weekend that Lee has largely quenched the wildfire.
In New Orleans, nearly 9 inches of rain had fallen by Sunday morning. Heavy rainfall was predicted for the area for a few more days, as slow moving tropical storm Lee continues to bring flooding to vulnerable coastal areas of Louisiana, subdivisions on the north shore of Lake Pontchartain, and low-lying areas of New Orleans.
While some areas of the coast have had more than 15 inches of rain, pumps in New Orleans and Jefferson parishes have so far kept up, with limited street flooding.
In New Orleans, top winds of 46 mph were reported Sunday morning, with gusts of 57 mph. Dozens of trees have been downed, with 35,000 metro residents losing power over parts of the weekend. While tornadoes are reported to have touched down in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, no fatalities from the storm have been reported so far.
New Orleans resident Herbert Kearney had a close call on Thursday afternoon, as Lee’s wind gusts first reached the city.
An artist who lives two blocks from the French Quarter, Kearney said he was downtown waiting for an appointment when a huge branch from a live oak broke and struck the sidewalk less than twenty feet away.
“If I had been standing under that tree, it would have killed me,” Kearny said on Sunday afternoon, watching whitecaps break on the Mississippi River across from Jackson Square. “All in all though, I prefer the rain to the smoke – the smoke was foul, people were going to the hospital because of it.”