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.
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.
Tracey Bardong walked along a sunny beach with scattered dark clouds hanging over the water in the distance. She said she had made storm preparations, but noted that nobody had canceled reservations at any of her four rental properties.
"Nobody's concerned," she said.
Thu Bui and her two young sons were in Pensacola Beach, Fla., on vacation from. The family spent Saturday morning fishing from the beach pier.
Bui said the kids were disappointed that they were not allowed to go in the water because of the rough surf. "But they have been swimming in the hotel pool and they like that," she said.
A tropical storm warning was in effect from Morgan City to the mouth of the Pearl River, which forms part of the border between Louisiana and Mississippi. A tropical storm watch covers the New Orleans area and a stretch from east of the Pearl River's mouth to Indian Pass, Fla.
Forecasters expected the storm's center to be in the warning area Saturday night or Sunday morning, and they note that an increase in speed is possible Sunday. Rain accumulations of 1 to 3 inches over the central Gulf Coast and southeastern U.S. are possible through Monday night, with isolated totals up to 6 inches.
Karen began losing some of its punch late Friday, after a busy day of preparations along the Gulf Coast for the storm. Karen is a late-arriving worry in what had been a slow hurricane season in the U.S. Karen would be the second named storm to make landfall in the U.S. — the first since Tropical Storm Andrea hit Florida in June.
Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida had each declared a state of emergency as of Friday. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Interior Department recalled workers, furloughed because of the government shutdown, to deal with the storm and help state and local agencies.
And in low-lying areas of southeast Louisiana, pickups hauling boat trailers and flatbed trucks laden with crab traps evacuated. Officials in Plaquemines Parish, La., an area inundated last year by slow-moving Hurricane Isaac in 2012, ordered mandatory evacuations Friday, mostly on the east bank of the Mississippi River. The parish, home to oil field service businesses and fishing marinas, juts out into the Gulf of Mexico from the state's southeastern tip.
Guy Laigast, head of emergency operations in the parish, noted an earlier forecast with a westward tick. "The jog to the west has got us concerned that wind will be piling water on the east bank levees," he said. Overtopping was not expected, but the evacuations were ordered as a precaution, he said.
Evacuations also were ordered on Grand Isle, 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 Friday 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.
In New Orleans, Sheriff Marlin Gusman had moved more than 400 inmates from temporary tent facilities to safer state lockups as a precaution. Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered a city emergency operations center to begin around-the-clock operations Friday evening.
In the Plaquemines Parish town of Braithwaite, swamped last year by Isaac, Blake Miller and others hauled paintings and valuables to the upper floor of the plantation home he owns.
"We came out to move the antique furniture upstairs, board up the shutters, get ready. We don't know for what, we hope not much, but we have to be ready," Miller said.
Kevin McGill reported from New Orleans. Associated Press reporters Melissa Nelson in Pensacola, Fla.; Tony Winton in Miami; Holbrook Mohr in Biloxi, Miss.; and Jay Reeves in Dauphin Island, Ala., contributed to this story.