A weakening Tropical Storm Ida lashed the U.S. Gulf Coast with drenching rain and high surf Tuesday as it moved ashore after shutting down almost 30 percent of Gulf of Mexico energy production.
Ida, once a Category 2 hurricane, made its first U.S. landfall at around 6:40 a.m EST on Dauphin island, the barrier island off Mobile, Alabama, packing maximum sustained winds of 45 miles per hour.
The Miami-based U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm was moving inland over Mobile Bay. After landfall, the storm was forecast to weaken further as it turned east over northern Florida.
Ida was offically downgraded to a tropical depression Tuesday after it moved ashore over Alabama.
With Ida weakening, most offshore oil rigs in the Gulf will not see any damage, said Jim Rouiller, senior energy meteorologist at private forecaster Planalytics Inc. Rouiller said that by Tuesday there would be normal operations across the production region.
Oil prices eased to $79 a barrel after Ida was downgraded from a Category 2 hurricane.
The Coast Guard closed the Port of Mobile, halting traffic on Mobile Bay, and authorities closed schools and government offices in coastal counties in Alabama and Florida, telling residents of flood-prone areas and mobile homes to evacuate.
The storm dumped heavy rainfall onshore and a tropical storm warning was in effect from Grand Isle, Louisiana, eastward to Aucilla River, Florida. The region was being pounded by rain and there were reports of flooded streets.
Ida, which was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm earlier Monday, posed the first real storm threat of the 2009 Atlantic hurricane season to Gulf of Mexico oil and natural gas production, and forced some companies to shut down offshore platforms and evacuate personnel.
The U.S. Minerals Management Service said Ida had shut down 29.6 percent of Gulf oil production and 27.5 percent of gas output.
Louisiana’s WWL-TV reported that a 70-year-old man was missing after a wave flipped over his boat when he had tried to help two other stranded boaters on the Mississippi River on Monday.
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter Monday plucked two workers from a storm-damaged oil rig south of New Orleans. Ida also is blamed for 124 flood and mudslide deaths in El Salvador.
The storm warning area included New Orleans, which is still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Alabama Governor Bob Riley had warned residents to be on guard and declared a state of emergency for the state. Some 2.8 million residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida could feel the storm’s effects, the U.S. Census Bureau said.
Energy markets have been hypersensitive to Gulf storms since the devastating 2004 and 2005 seasons, when storms like Katrina disrupted U.S. output and sent pump prices soaring.
The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, the only U.S. terminal capable of handling the largest tankers, stopped unloading ships due to stormy seas. The Independence Hub, a major offshore natural gas processing facility, also was closed.
A quarter of U.S. oil and 15 percent of its natural gas are produced from fields in the Gulf, and the coast is home to 40 percent of the nation’s refining capacity.
Schools, beaches and parks closed in the Florida Panhandle, the same area hit in August by Tropical Storm Claudette, the only other cyclone to make a U.S. landfall during the 2009 Atlantic season, one of the least active in a decade.
(Additional reporting by Jose Cortazar and Michael O’Boyle in Cancun, Nelson Renteria in San Salvador, Ivan Castro in Managua, Erwin Seba in Houston; Pascal Fletcher in Miami, Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Will Dunham)
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