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Extreme weather causes ship problems in Virginia and Louisiana

An evening thunderstorm with wind gusts of more than 70 mph caused a cargo ship to run aground, coming to rest just a few hundred feet from the beach and drawing plenty of onlookers from nearby condos and apartments Wednesday morning.

The Coast Guard said the weather was to blame for the grounding of the 751-foot bulk carrier the Ornak and for a collision of two other vessels Tuesday night.

"It's really pretty amazing," Virginia Beach resident Dick Ullman said near the site Wednesday as people gathered to take photos. "This is a first. I've been coming down this way for about 50 years, and I don't remember a ship being blown ashore like this."

The Ornak, which typically hauls coal and gravel, was anchored east of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and ran aground near First Landing State Park.

No injuries, damage or pollution were reported due to the grounding or the collision. The National Weather Service reported that waves reached 4 to 6 feet during the peak of the storm, with sustained winds from 30 mph to 45 mph.

Officials were trying to determine Wednesday when they would be able to free the ship, with high winds continuing throughout the morning. The ship is owned by a company called Polsteam and sails under a Bahamian flag, according to the Coast Guard.

As the storm swept through southeastern Virginia, it knocked out power to about 28,000 people, according to Dominion Virginia Power.

The collision occurred about an hour before the grounding in a main shipping channel, the Coast Guard said. The 79-foot rig vessel Petite and the 1,065-foot container ship MSC Charleston were later safely anchored.

Winds also caused 12 ships to drag anchor, the Coast Guard said.

Meanwhile, the owner of a tow boat that grounded Tuesday in Lake Pontchartrain said high waves pushed by a passing storm front broke a line connecting the vessel and a barge it was pushing.

The captain had no choice but to run the vessel - the Todd Michael - onto rocks at the lake's south shore to keep it from sinking, said Todd Eymard of Belle Chasse, La.-based Hugh Eymard Towing Inc.

"They were being tossed all over," Eymard said.

The Coast Guard said two men were hoisted from the tow boat by an MH-65 helicopter while a third man was taken off the barge by a Coast Guard patrol boat.

Eymard said they were taken to hospitals for treatment of injuries he described as dehydration and bruises. "Thank God above the injuries were minor," Eymard said.

The barge was not carrying cargo and had been moved to another site by Wednesday morning. Eymard says he is working with the Coast Guard on a plan to salvage the Todd Michael.

The incident happened early Tuesday as a line of violent storms moved through the New Orleans area and along the Mississippi coast. The storms spawned high waves in Lake Pontchartrain and strong winds that overturned recreational vehicles and trailers at a camper park in Gautier, Miss., about 50 miles to the east. Several injuries were reported there.

Lake Pontchartrain is a shallow brackish lake used mostly by recreational boats and for inshore barge transportation. It connects to the Gulf of Mexico through two narrow passes on its eastern end.

The grounding took place near New Orleans Lakefront Airport, which primarily serves private and charter aircraft.

The site is about seven miles from the heavily trafficked 23.9-mile long causeway that connects the lake's north and south shores, both suburbs of New Orleans.