BRAITHWAITE, La. (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 of the storm. Officials still urged residents to be vigilant, with heavy rains and high winds a possibility, even as an evacuation order was scaled back in one of Louisiana's most vulnerable areas.
Officials in Plaquemines Parish, La., said the evacuation-order change from mandatory to voluntary would take effect at noon Saturday. More than 80 evacuees from the area, at the state's southeastern tip, had taken refuge at a public shelter.
The National Hurricane Center reported in the morning 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 said in their advisory that they expect Karen to decrease in speed later Saturday and turn toward the northeast.
"This is certainly something that you can remain safe in — it's a lot weaker than it was, no chance of it becoming a hurricane — as long as you follow advice from local officials," Rick Knabb, the director of the National Hurricane Center, said.
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.
Elsewhere along the coast, some tourists ventured out onto beaches to watch the heavy surf.
Ray and Lynn Walls of Shepherdsville, Ky., had the beach to themselves Saturday on the western tip of Dauphin Island, Ala. It was sunny and mild as 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.