- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 6, 2011

ATLANTA (AP) — Heavy rain from former Tropical Storm Lee rolled northeast into Appalachian states Tuesday, spreading the threat of flooding as far as New England after drenching the South, spawning tornadoes, sweeping several people away and knocking out power to thousands.

At least four people died because of the rough winds and drenching rains.

Lee also churned up heavy surf that sent tar balls washing onto Alabama’s prime tourist beaches. The globs of oil found so far were very small, Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said, and their origin was unclear. The tar balls may be tested to find out if they came from oil that spilled last year from BP’s Macondo well, said Scott Hughes, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

Oil from the spill soiled Gulf Coast beaches during the summer tourist season a year ago, though officials said the tar balls found so far didn’t compare with the thick oil found on beaches then.

BP officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Connie Harris of Alabaster, Ala., spent the Labor Day weekend in nearby Gulf Shores and came back from a walk on the beach to find she had to scrub her feet with a washcloth and soap.

“When we walked on the beach, we had tar on our feet,” she said.

Meanwhile, more rain was expected in parts of Tennessee that already saw precipitation records fall on Labor Day. Tornado watches covered much of North and South Carolina, and flooding was forecast along the upper Potomac River and some of its tributaries in West Virginia and Western Maryland.

Flood watches and warnings were in effect from northeast Alabama and Tennessee through West Virginia to upstate New York, already soaked by Irene. Rainfall amounts of 4 to 8 inches, with isolated spots up to 10 inches, were possible as heavy rain spread into the central Appalachians, the National Weather Service’s Hydrometeorological Prediction Center said.

In Georgia, officials at Fort Stewart said a lightning strike sent about 22 soldiers to the hospital Monday, with at least three kept overnight.

Fort Stewart spokesman Pat Young said the soldiers were on the post’s Donovan Field in a large tent that may have been directly hit by lightning. He said there were no initial reports of burns and 18 of the soldiers were released back to active duty Monday evening.

Rain kept falling Tuesday in Chattanooga, Tenn., which went from its driest-ever month in August with barely a drop to a record one-day deluge of 8.16 inches by 5 p.m. Monday. By dawn Tuesday, 10 inches of rain had fallen in the state’s fourth-largest city.

Numerous roads were flooded, and the soggy ground meant even modest winds were toppling trees. In Chattanooga, a tree fell onto a woman while she was moving her car, killing her, said police Sgt. Jerri Weary.

The storm system churned up treacherous waters across the South. In Mississippi, a man drowned while trying to cross a swollen creek, while authorities called off the search for a missing swimmer presumed dead off Alabama. Another man died after trying to cross a swollen creek near a dam in suburban Atlanta.

Rain in Alabama flooded numerous Birmingham roads. The storm also caused a roof to collapse at Pinson Valley High School outside Birmingham, according to the Birmingham News. No injuries were reported.

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