By Michael Kunzelman and Kevin McGill
The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — From a tiny, vulnerable island off the Louisiana coast to the beaches of the Florida Panhandle, Gulf Coast residents prepared Thursday for a possible hit from Tropical Storm Karen, which threatened to become the first named tropical system to menace the United States this year.
Karen was forecast to lash the northern Gulf Coast over the weekend as a weak hurricane or tropical storm. A hurricane watch was in effect from Grand Isle, La., to west of Destin, Fla. A tropical storm warning was issued for the Louisiana coast from Grand Isle to the mouth of the Pearl River, including the New Orleans area.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said late Thursday that Karen was about 340 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi River and had maximum sustained winds of 65 mph with higher gusts.
The storm was moving north-northwest at 10 mph. It could be at or near hurricane strength late today and early Saturday, forecasters said, with the center near the coast on Saturday.
In Alabama, safety workers on Thursday hoisted double red flags at Gulf Shores because of treacherous rip currents ahead of the storm.
In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency, urging residents to prepare. State Emergency Management Agency Director Robert Latham said local schools will decide whether to play football games.
He said the southern part of the state could have tropical storm-force winds by late today.
“I know that Friday night football in the South is a big thing, but I don’t think anybody wants to risk a life because of the potential winds,” Latham said.