Weakened Karen continues move toward Gulf Coast

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Tropical Storm Karen continued to chug toward the Gulf Coast on Saturday, threatening to bring heavy winds and high rains, despite a general weakening overnight. Officials still urged residents to be vigilant, even as an evacuation order in one of Louisiana's most vulnerable areas was scaled back.

"The storm's weakened, and that's good news, but we're not out of the woods yet," New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at a news conference. He warned of likely high winds, street flooding and power outages.

From Louisiana to northwest Florida, officials and residents expected to begin feeling the effects of the storm Saturday night and Sunday.

"There is still the potential for some locally heavy rainfall and for some storm surge in coastal areas, but the magnitudes of those hazards greatly reduced," said Rick Knabb, the director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "We still could see 1 to 3 feet of coastal flooding due to storm surge in some spots."

Officials in Plaquemines Parish, La., said the evacuation-order change from mandatory to voluntary took effect at noon Saturday. More than 80 evacuees from the area, at the state's southeastern tip, had taken refuge at a public shelter, which would remain open Saturday.

"The storm has been downgraded tremendously," said Guy Lagaist, head of emergency operations for the parish. He said storm surge predictions for the lower portion of the parish were reduced, from a 3-to-5 foot range to 1-to-3. "That allows us a lot of breathing room."

The National Hurricane Center reported that Karen's maximum sustained winds had dropped to 40 mph, making it a weak tropical storm. It was moving north at 10 mph (16 kph), and center forecasters expect Karen to decrease in speed later Saturday and turn toward the northeast.

Coastal authorities closed flood gates along waterways that could be affected by tides driven by the storm. In New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continued closing barriers designed to keep surge out of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal - scene of catastrophic flooding in 2005 when flood walls failed during Hurricane Katrina.

Col. Richard Hansen of the corps said more gates along various canals could be closed, and warned boaters not to get caught on the wrong side of those gates "If there is a gate in the system, it may not be open when you decide to come back in," Hansen said. "So it's time to pull your boats out of the water and quit fishing."

Despite warnings, some couldn't resist the draw of beaches where surf was rough but skies were sunny.

Ray and Lynn Walls of Shepherdsville, Ky., had a sunny beach to themselves Saturday on the western tip of Dauphin Island, Ala. Big waves pounded the seawall protecting nearby homes, and a locked gate blocked the entrance to a public beach that was closed because of Karen.

The trip had been planned for four people, but only two showed up, Ray Walls said. "The rest of them got a little scared of the storm."

In Biloxi, Miss., families played on the beach, joggers trotted along the waterfront and a steady stream of cars passed on the main beach front road. Resident Tracey Bardong said nobody had canceled reservations at any of her four rental properties.

Karen's weakening meant possible disappointment for Cheryl Greer, who drove through the night from Nicholasville, Ky., on a weekend adventure to Mississippi to visit her daughter and experience her first tropical storm.

"I'm looking forward to it. It would be my first one," she said. "I'm going to come to the beach and video it."

Thu Bui and her two young sons were in Pensacola Beach, Fla., on vacation, spending Saturday morning fishing from the beach pier. Bui said the kids were disappointed that they weren't allowed in the water because of the rough surf.

Areas evacuated for the storm included Grand Isle, La., a barrier island community where the only route out is a single flood-prone highway, and in coastal Lafourche Parish.

Traffic at the mouth of the Mississippi River was stopped in advance of the storm, and passengers aboard two Carnival Cruise ships bound for weekend arrivals in New Orleans were told they may not arrive until Monday.

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