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Mississippi man drowns in floodwaters of Tropical Storm Lee

Monday, September 5, 2011 | 4:21 p.m. CDT

JACKSON, Miss. — A plodding system dumping a torrent of rain across the South turned deadly in Mississippi when a man was swept away by floodwaters after trying to cross a swollen creek, authorities said Monday.

The death was the first reported so far that was directly attributed to the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee. Forecasters said the storm wasn't finished yet as it slowly moved east, threatening to spin off more tornadoes and cause flash floods and mudslides along the way. At least 16,000 people were without power in Louisiana and Mississippi as of Monday afternoon.

The man who died in Mississippi, 57-year-old John Howard Anderson Jr., had been in a car with two other people trying to cross a rain-swollen creek that naturally flows over the entrance to JP Coleman State Park. Anderson had been staying on a houseboat at the park's marina. Tishomingo County Coroner Mack Wilemon said he was told Anderson was outside of the car and had been thrown a rope to be rescued, but that Anderson couldn't hold on.

Jonathan Weeks, a 48-year-old salesman from Plantersville who owns a vacation home near the park, said he helped pull two people to shore and tried to save Anderson.

Weeks said a strong storm had come through the area, and he and his wife went out looking around when they saw a van crossing the creek. He happened to have a rope in the tool box of his truck.

"It all happened so fast. They were in there trying to get out and panicking. The power was out so everything was dark," Weeks recalled in a phone interview Monday.

"We threw them a rope and tied it to a tree," Weeks said. "We got two of them to the bank and were trying to help the driver. We had him on the rope and were trying to pull him in, but I don't think he was able to hold on."

Art Gaines, a 69-year-old retiree who lives near the park, said he and his wife heard their dogs barking at the commotion.

"When we looked out the window we saw flashlights and then the next thing we know there was a van going down the creek, which is a misnomer, because once the water gets rolling through there it's like a small river, not a creek," Gaines said.

Gaines called 911 and went outside to help. By then, two people had been pulled from the water and others were searching for Anderson.

In Texas, a body boarder drowned after being pulled out to sea by heavy surf churned up by Tropical Storm Lee, and the Coast Guard was searching for a boy swept away by rough surf off the Alabama coast.

The tropicalstorm came ashore over the weekend 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. On Monday, heavy rain continued to fall in Mississippi and make its way across Alabama and into Tennessee and Georgia.

"Right now it's a big rainmaker," said Marc McAllister, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jackson.

Elsewhere, the heavy rain made for a dud of a Labor Day holiday as Gulf Coast beaches mostly cleared of tourists. On Monday morning, the main road on Alabama's Dauphin Island was flooded and covered with sand, jellyfish and foam washed in by Tropical Storm Lee. Customers trickled in to the town's largest store on what should have been a busy day.

"It's been kind of boring," said Tabitha Miller, a clerk at Ship and Shore. "It's not killing us though since we're the only gig in town."

Rain already had started falling in Tennessee, though no campers had been evacuated from Great Smoky Mountain National Park, officials said.

As of Monday afternoon, overflowing creeks and rivers were already causing problems ahead of warnings that things could get worse as rain falls over higher elevations in the Appalachian Mountains.

All the rain caused a creek to swell near an apartment complex in Jackson, prompting officials to move 45 families to a storm shelter. In Louisiana's Livingston Parish, about 200 families were evacuated because of flooding.

In Louisiana's coastal Plaquemines Parish, officials considered cutting a hole in one of two levees protecting the area to drain water from a flooded road, spokesman Kurt Fromherz said. The parish sits on a sliver of land dotted with oil and gas companies, and its main highway was under water.

The rain had stopped in the Gulf of Mexico, allowing oil and gas production platforms and rigs to look for damage and get operations kick-started again on Monday. Federal regulators said evacuations had shut in about 61 percent of oil production and 46 percent of natural gas production in the Gulf.

The storm was forecast to move up the Tennessee River Valley on Tuesday, and forecasters have warned people to be on the lookout for tornadoes. Several already had been reported, including one that damaged five homes in Harrison County.

Jessica Talley, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's Birmingham, Ala., office, said the tornado threat would last in that state into the evening. Any tornadoes aren't expected to be nearly as powerful or long-lasting as those that killed hundreds across the Southeast in April. But there is concern that trees in saturated soil could be more easily pushed over onto homes.


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