BILOXI, Miss. — Hurricane Nate lashed coastal Mississippi on Sunday morning, causing power outages and some flooding before racing north and weakening rapidly into a tropical depression.
Nate made landfall as a Category 1 storm with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph and, though downgraded, remains a sloppy-wet storm that is expected to deliver 3 to 6 inches of rain to Tennessee and the southern Appalachians. It is the fourth hurricane to make landfall this year in the United States in what has been an extraordinary season for tropical cyclones.
Nate did not deliver a disastrous punch, in part because it steered clear of New Orleans, which is highly vulnerable to heavy downpours because of its low elevation and an antiquated pumping system that needs repairs. But Biloxi, Miss., and nearby communities took a serious thrashing.
There have been no reports of deaths or extreme property damage, though some 40,000 people in Mississippi lost power, according to Greg Flynn, spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). The casinos of Biloxi suffered flooding from the storm surge, vividly captured in images posted by storm chasers on social media.
Local media reported extensive damage to the Biloxi Lighthouse Pier. Coastal roads in the region suffered damage but were reopening steadily Sunday morning as the floodwaters receded. When Jackson County, Miss., lifted its curfew at 7 a.m., it instructed citizens to stay off the roads, including the flooded, sand-covered U.S. Route 90, which runs along the coast and crosses Biloxi Bay.
“As always, we’re grateful for things great and small, and with this storm, it could have been a lot worse,” Gulfport, Miss., Mayor Billy Hewes said in a video message posted Sunday morning on Facebook.
Storm surge as high as 11 feet struck the coast of Mississippi, but mitigation efforts since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 made a radical difference and limited property damage, said Flynn, the MEMA spokesman. He cited new seawalls, a fortification of Route 90 along the beachfront and building codes that elevated homes vulnerable to storm surge.
“People will say we dodged a bullet, but that’s not right. We took a hit, and it just goes to show if you spend money on mitigation on the front end, it will save you money on the back end,” Flynn said. “Everything we have is now almost 20 feet in the air off the ground. People will look at happened in Mississippi last night and say Nate wasn’t that bad. But had Nate hit us before Katrina, we would have seen widespread damage.”
In coastal Alabama, streets in Bayou La Batre were littered with tree debris Sunday morning, and many yards had standing tidewater and marsh grass, but the power was on. Locals packed into a Waffle House that had remained open through the storm and compared their experiences.
Waiting in line with his grandson, resident Paul Brown said he lost power about 1 a.m. and finished out the night using his generator. But when sunlight came, he found that his home, which was damaged heavily during Hurricane Katrina, was spared this time.
“We did fine, no problems at all,” he said.
Bruce Blythe and his girlfriend, Gail Summerford, had planned to ride out the storm at their home on Dauphin Island but evacuated north to Bayou La Batre on a neighbor’s suggestion. They won’t be able to return home until an access road to the island reopens.
“I’m no hurricane expert, but I think this was just a baby hurricane,” said Blythe, who moved to the area from California in July.
Residents along the Mississippi coast also expressed relief about the storm’s minimal damage. In the coastal town of Pass Christian, pumpkins from a church fundraiser had scattered across Route 90, victims of Nate’s rampage. The gourds came from a pumpkin sale for Trinity Episcopal Church, and organizers figured only about half of the existing stock could be retrieved.
“Their pumpkin sale just floated away,” said Andrew Hirstmyer, a resident. He pooh-poohed the storm itself, noting “The difference between a [Category] 1 and a 5 is just amazing. This,” he nodded toward the pumpkins, “is just comic relief.”
Nate is falling apart as it speeds to the northeast, but it may yet deliver torrential rainfall to the southern Appalachians, creating flash flood conditions. The remnants of Nate could deliver much-needed rainfall to the parched Mid-Atlantic on Monday.
Nate made its initial landfall Saturday evening on the bird’s foot peninsula of Louisiana, where the Mississippi River flows between high levees into the Gulf of Mexico. That feeble spit of land did nothing to slow the storm. It crossed over open water again before making landfall again near the city of Gulfport, Miss., just after midnight Sunday local time.
The hurricane was traveling north at record speed as it came up from the southern Gulf of Mexico — it was clocked at 28 miles per hour at one point Saturday — and that forward velocity added extra punch to the east side of the storm because of its rotation. The storm looked like a boxer with his left arm strapped to his side, throwing nothing but right crosses at Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle while leaving most of Louisiana alone.
The succession of hurricanes that began with Harvey striking Texas on the evening of Aug. 25 has tested the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates disaster response.
“In regards to resources, of course, we’re strained,” the agency’s administrator, William “Brock” Long, said on ABC’s “This Week” program. He said about 85 percent of the agency is deployed.
“We’re still working massive issues in Harvey, Irma, as well as the issues in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and now this one,” Long said.
He sharply dismissed criticism of the federal response from San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulin Cruz, who posted a string of Twitter messages claiming FEMA was doing nothing to help a hospital in San Juan that had lost power and needed patients evacuated. One message said, “Increasingly painful to undestand [sic] the american people want to help and US Gov does not want to help. WE NEED WATER!”
“We filtered out the mayor a long time ago. We don’t have time for the political noise,” Long said when asked about the mayor’s tweets. He said patients in intensive care have been air-lifted from hospitals to the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort.
— Carmen K. Sisson contributed to this report.