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Hurricane Ida weakens

The first hurricane this year to threaten the US Gulf Coast weakened early on Monday but could still pack hurricane-strength winds and storm surges when it hits the shore overnight.

world Updated: Nov 09, 2009 20:54 IST

The first hurricane this year to threaten the US Gulf Coast weakened early on Monday but could still pack hurricane-strength winds and storm surges when it hits the shore overnight.

Warnings ahead of Hurricane Ida extended more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) across several states, although residents seemed to take the late-season storm in stride. Ida is the third hurricane of this year's Atlantic season, which ends December 1. The first two stayed far out to sea.

There were no immediate plans for mandatory evacuations. But authorities in some coastal area were opening shelters and encouraging people who live near the water or in mobile homes to leave.

"Even though we're telling everybody to be prepared, my gut tells me it probably won't be that bad," said Steve Arndt, director of Bay Point Marina Co in Panama City, Florida.

The US National Hurricane Center in Miami said top sustained winds from the Category 1 hurricane had decreased to near 80 mph (130 kph) around 7:00 am EST; (1200 GMT) from about 90 mph (145 kph) earlier on Monday.

Hurricane warnings remained in effect from Pascagoula, Mississippi, east to Indian Pass, Florida. Tropical storm warnings and hurricane watches are in effect across neighboring areas including New Orleans. Forecasters said Ida could make landfall on Monday night or early on Tuesday.

Louisiana Gov Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency as a precaution, and the National Guard was on high alert if assistance was needed.

Earlier, heavy rain in Ida's wake triggered flooding and landslides in El Salvador that killed 124 people. One mudslide covered the town of Verapaz, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) outside the capital, San Salvador, before sawn Sunday.

Early Monday, Ida was located about 235 miles (380 kilometers) south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River and moving north-northwest near 16 mph (25 kph).

The latest storm track projection from the National Hurricane Center showed Ida brushing near Louisiana and Mississippi, then making landfall near Alabama before continuing across north Florida. Officials were encouraging residents to prepare for potential gusts of 60 mph (100 kph) by removing any tree limbs that could damage their homes and securing or bringing in any trash cans, grills, potted plants or patio furniture.

Residents of Pensacola Beach and nearby Perdido Key were encouraged to leave, and school was canceled in the area Monday and Tuesday. Some schools around New Orleans also canceled classes for Monday.

Nearly 1,400 Louisiana residents are still living in federally issued trailers and mobile homes after hurricanes Katrina and Rita; nearly 360 units remained in Mississippi.

"FEMA stresses that those in temporary (housing) units should not take chances," Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Andrew Thomas said. "Leave the unit behind and evacuate to a permanent structure that will better withstand tropical weather systems and the associated winds."

Mississippi authorities warned residents to be vigilant. Authorities were monitoring conditions to see whether any evacuations of lower-lying areas or school closures would be necessary.

"It is likely we will at least be hit with strong winds and some flooding in our coastal counties," said Jeff Rent, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. Officials "do not want anybody to be caught off guard."

Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Womack said forecasts called for tides of up to 7 feet (2 meters) above normal and rainfall totals of up to 7 inches (18 centimeters) within 24 hours, which could mean flooding along the coasts and along rivers. Alabama emergency management officials did not immediately respond to phone messages.

In the Florida Panhandle, residents in Bay County and Panama City were being advised to secure boats and prepare for storm surges that could reach 3 feet (1 meter). Heavy rain, wind and possible flooding was also expected.

"You really don't know until it gets close how you're going to be affected by it," said Brad Monroe, Bay County's deputy chief of emergency services.

Ida wasn't expected to pack the wallop seen in 2008 when hurricanes Gustav and Ike pelted the Gulf Coast back-to-back. There have been nine named storms this season, which ends Dec 1. Ida is only the third hurricane to form, and neither of the others threatened land.

Earlier on Sunday, Ida's wind and rain whipped palm trees in the Mexican resort city of Cancun. Fishermen tied their boats down, though tourists seemed to regard it as a minor setback.