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Gulf Coast preps as Ida weakens to tropical storm

PENSACOLA – Gulf Coast residents hunkered down at home and in shelters Monday as a rare late-season tropical storm headed their way, bringing with it the potential for high winds, flooding and up to 8 inches of rain in some places.

After a quiet Atlantic storm season, people took the year’s first serious threat in stride.

“We can ride it out right here,” said T.J. Covacevich, 50, who wore a “Hurricane Hunter” T-shirt as he tied down his powerboat in a Biloxi, Miss., harbor.

Earlier, heavy rain in Ida’s wake triggered flooding and landslides in El Salvador that killed at least 130 people.

Ida had been the third hurricane of this year’s Atlantic season, which ends Dec. 1, but weakened to a tropical storm Monday, with maximum sustained winds near 70 mph.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said it was expected to weaken further before making landfall along the Gulf Coast sometime Monday night or early Tuesday. Rain was already falling in many spots by Monday afternoon.

Tropical storm warnings were in effect across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, where governors declared states of emergency.

Gov. Charlie Crist said officials were relieved Ida had weakened but warned that tropical storms can still be deadly. He pointed to Fay, which was blamed for more than a dozen deaths in Florida, Haiti and the Dominican Republic last year.

“That thing was a tropical storm and we lost a lot of our fellow Floridians, so it’s important to stay vigilant,” Crist said outside the state emergency operations center. “We need to be careful.”

Residents elsewhere in the Southeast braced for heavy rain. In north Georgia, which saw historic flooding in September, forecasters said up to 4 more inches could soak the already-saturated ground as Ida moved across the state.

Two Chevron Corp. workers had to be rescued early Monday from an offshore oil rig about 80 miles south of New Orleans that was in danger of toppling as Ida churned up high seas. They were not hurt.

There were no plans for mandatory evacuations, but authorities in some coastal areas opened shelters and encouraged people near the water or in mobile homes to leave. Many schools closed, and several cruise ships were delayed as the U.S. Coast Guard closed Gulf Coast ports.

Monday afternoon, Ida was located about 60 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River and about 165 miles south-southwest of Pensacola. It was moving north-northwest near 18 mph.

On Pensacola Beach, Dan Conell took shelter in a pavilion so he could watch the churning Gulf. The Kansas City, Mo., resident, in town for a conference, was seeing the ocean for the first time.

“This is amazing,” he said.