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Tropical Storm Lee, building off Louisiana, could drench South

Workers prepared for Tropical Storm Lee yesterday in Jean Lafitte, La., near New Orleans, by preparing a temporary dam. Workers prepared for Tropical Storm Lee yesterday in Jean Lafitte, La., near New Orleans, by preparing a temporary dam. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)
By Janet McConnaughey
Associated Press / September 3, 2011

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NEW ORLEANS - A large storm system churning in the Gulf of Mexico grew yesterday into Tropical Storm Lee, beginning a Labor Day weekend assault that could bring up to 20 inches of rain to some spots from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle.

The storm was expected to make landfall on the central Louisiana coast late today and turn east toward New Orleans, where it would provide the biggest test of rebuilt levees since Hurricane Gustav struck on Labor Day 2008.

Residents who have survived killer hurricanes such as Betsy, Camille, and Katrina did not expect Lee to live up to that legacy.

“It’s a lot of rain. It’s nothing, nothing to Katrina,’’ said Malcolm James, 59, a federal investigator in New Orleans who lost his home after levees broke during Katrina in August 2005 and had to be airlifted by helicopter.

“This is mild,’’ he said. “Things could be worse.’’

Lee comes less than a week after Hurricane Irene killed more than 40 people from North Carolina to Maine and knocked out power to millions. It was too soon to tell if Hurricane Katia, out in the Atlantic, could endanger the United States.

By last evening, the outer bands of Lee, the 12th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, began dumping rain over southeastern Louisiana, southern Mississippi, and Alabama.

The storm’s biggest impact has been in the Gulf of Mexico oil fields. About half the Gulf’s oil production has been cut as rigs were evacuated, though oil prices were down sharply yesterday on sour economic news.

US authorities said 169 of the 617 staffed production platforms have been evacuated, along with 16 of the 62 drilling rigs.

Kevin Lucas, an offshore worker from Lafayette, La., was evacuated by boat from a production platform Thursday. He was in New Orleans’ French Quarter yesterday. “It was rocking,’’ he said of the boat. “A few fellows got seasick.’’

Tropical storm warning flags were flying from Mississippi to Texas, and flash flood warnings extended along the Alabama coast into the Florida Panhandle. Lee had winds of 40 miles per hour - minimal tropical storm strength.

The National Hurricane Center said the center of Lee was about 185 miles southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River yesterday and moving north at just 2 miles per hour. Its center was expected to make landfall in Louisiana this weekend.

Forecasters say Lee’s maximum sustained winds have intensified from 40 to 45 miles per hour and could increase.

Governors in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as the mayor of New Orleans, declared states of emergency. Officials in several coastal Louisiana communities called for voluntary evacuations.

The Army Corps of Engineers was closing floodgates along the Harvey Canal, a waterway in suburban New Orleans, but had not moved to shut a massive flood structure on the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet shipping channel.

The channel was a major conduit for Katrina’s storm surge, which overwhelmed levees and flooded St. Bernard and the city’s Lower Ninth Ward.

Officials said they expect street flooding but no levee problems. Lee’s storm surge, projected around 4 to 5 feet, is far short of the 20-feet-plus driven by Katrina. Billions of dollars have been spent on new levees and other flood protection.

In New Orleans’ central business district, yesterday seemed a typical day. Employees at big-box home improvement stores said residents were not rushing in to stock up.

Merchants, however, worried the storm would dampen the Southern Decadence festival, an annual gay lifestyle fixture that rings cash registers on Labor Day weekend. Ann Sonnier, shift manager of Jester’s bar, said receipts were disappointing so far.

“People are probably scared to death to come here after Katrina,’’ she said.

Some tourists were caught off guard by Lee, but did not let it dampen their spirits.

“I didn’t even know about it,’’ said Kyla Holley of Madison, Wis., in town for the Labor Day weekend holiday. “But it wouldn’t have stopped us from coming.’’

The water-logged Lee was tantalizingly close to Texas but hopes dimmed for relief from the state’s worst drought since the 1950s as the storm’s forecast track shifted east. Forecasters said it could bring drenching rains to Mississippi and Alabama early next week.

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