Louisiana, Mississippi dodge bullet as tropical depression moves ashore in Florida panhandle

Published 2:13 am Sunday, September 23, 2007

Gulf Coast residents breathed a sigh of relief Saturday after a tropical depression came ashore in the Florida panhandle, then weakened, sparing them their first serious brush with tropical weather since two hurricanes ravaged the region in 2005.

Forecasters downgraded the threat when the storm system moved ashore Friday night near Fort Walton Beach, Fla., with top sustained winds of 35 mph.

“Everybody’s dodging (the proverbial bullet) right now,” said Bob Wagner, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Slidell, La.

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The weather service discontinued tropical storm warnings that had stretched from Apalachicola, Fla., to the mouth of the Mississippi River, including New Orleans.

Early Saturday, the system was moving west in southwestern Alabama with maximum sustained winds near 15 mph. One to 2 inches of rain was expected.

Officials weren’t taking any chances Friday. The governors in Louisiana and Mississippi had declared states of emergency. Authorities opened shelters and issued sandbags. However, by 10 p.m., New Orleans officials were closing their shelters, a city spokeswoman said.

Residents throughout the region devastated by the hurricanes had kept a wary eye on the storm.

Sandy Pallon, 59, of Biloxi, Miss., lives in a FEMA trailer park on a treeless gravel lot where an elementary school stood before Katrina. She loaded up her sport utility vehicle Friday and prepared to go to her mother’s house in Hattiesburg.

“I went through the other,” she said, referring to Katrina, “and I definitely don’t want to go through that again.”

Larry Hesler, a retired fisherman who lives in a government trailer on a weedy lot where his sister’s home used to stand in east Biloxi, said he wouldn’t worry about the storm unless the winds top 60 mph.

“Once you’ve been through Katrina, it’s got to be pretty bad to scare you off,” said Hesler, 63.

Before it spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, the system spawned a storm that was also blamed for severe weather, including a tornado, that damaged about 50 homes in Eustis, Fla. Only two injuries, both minor, were reported in the area about 30 miles northwest of Orlando.

“It’s amazing — we’re completely blessed,” said Brett MacLaughlin, who safely rode out the storm with his mother and stepfather in a bathroom as tree limbs crashed through windows outside. “The entire neighborhood is very blessed.”