As torrents of rain moved ashore the northern Gulf Coast early Saturday, the National Hurricane Center declared Tropical Storm Claudette had formed over southeast Louisiana, the third named storm of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season.
Through Saturday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center warned of “heavy rainfall and life-threatening flash flooding across coastal Mississippi and Alabama, and the far western Florida Panhandle.” Rainfall amounts of five to 10 inches, as well as isolated 15-inch totals, are possible.
Claudette is a minimal tropical storm, with maximum sustained winds of 40 mph, having formed about 45 miles southwest of New Orleans around 5 a.m. Saturday. As of 11 a.m., it was centered 95 miles west-northwest of Mobile, Ala., and headed north-northeast at 14 mph.
Although it’s a low-end tropical storm, it was drawing a tremendous amount of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico inland. In a special bulletin early Saturday morning, the National Weather Service noted rainfall rates as high as two to 3.5 inches per hour were occurring in the most intense thunderstorms over coastal Alabama and the western Florida Panhandle, where flash flood warnings were posted.
As of late Saturday morning, some of the heaviest rain had progressed into central Alabama from Montgomery to Birmingham. Flash flood watches covered an extensive zone from extreme eastern Louisiana, southern Mississippi, the southern two-thirds of Alabama and central Georgia, including Atlanta.
Embedded within the rain bands, some thunderstorms were rotating, prompting numerous tornado warnings in central and eastern Alabama. Tornado watches covered much of southern Alabama, the Florida Panhandle and southwest Georgia into the evening Saturday.
Social media photos showed tornado damage apparent in East Brewton, about 60 miles east-northeast of Mobile.
As the storm came ashore early Saturday morning, it also produced high seas and dangerous surf. Waters levels were predicted to be elevated two to three feet above normally dry land due to storm surge from southeast Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle. Observations confirmed this around Mobile Bay as well as parts of southeast Louisiana and coastal Mississippi, including around Bay St. Louis.
Water levels are beginning to rise sharply around the Mobile Bay area. Strongest onshore flow is now occurring across the area and water levels at Bayou La Batre have quickly risen above the minor stage criteria, now at 2.27 feet above normally dry ground and rising. pic.twitter.com/qGaYtIG5Q3— NWS Mobile (@NWSMobile) June 19, 2021
The storm’s heaviest rainfall Friday through Saturday morning focused just to the east of New Orleans. While about two to three inches were reported around the Big Easy, amounts up to eight inches were observed in Slidell, La., just to the northeast, across Lake Pontchartrain.
Wind gusts of up to 43 mph were clocked in New Orleans and as high as 59 mph in Gulfport, Miss.
With the storm moving inland, inland rain is expected to be the most widespread hazard along and east of the storm track.
“Heavy rain will occur across central Alabama, central and northern Georgia, and into the Piedmont of the Carolinas, resulting in rainfall totals of 3 to 6 inches with isolated maximum amounts of 8 inches,” the Hurricane Center wrote. “Flash, urban, small stream and isolated minor river flooding impacts are possible.”
While forecast to weaken to a tropical depression by late Saturday, it may begin to restrengthen as it nears the North Carolina coast Sunday night into Monday. As such, the Hurricane Center has issued a tropical storm watch for much of coastal North Carolina, where wind gusts of 40 to 60 mph, heavy rain and elevated seas are quite possible.
According to Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane expert at Colorado State University, Claudette is the fifth-earliest third-named storm on record since 1950. The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season is forecast to be an active one, with 13 to 20 named storms, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Tropical Storm #Claudette has formed - the 3rd Atlantic named storm of the 2021 #hurricane season to date. Claudette is fifth earliest 3rd Atlantic named storm formation since 1950, trailing 2020 (6/2), 2016 (6/5), 1959 (6/18/0 UTC) and 2012 (6/18/18 UTC). pic.twitter.com/4UPCj403yJ— Philip Klotzbach (@philklotzbach) June 19, 2021