NEW ORLEANS – A large storm system churning in the Gulf Of Mexico grew Friday into Tropical Storm Lee, beginning a Labor Day weekend-long assault that could bring up to 20 inches of rain in 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 didn’t 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 had to be airlifted by helicopter and lost his home after levees broke during Katrina in August 2005.
“This is mild,” he said. “Things could be worse.”
Lee will arrive 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 U.S.
By Friday evening, the outer bands of Lee, the 12th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, already began dumping rain over southeastern Louisiana, southern Mississippi and Alabama.
About 2 1/2 inches of rain fell Friday in some places on the Gulf Coast, including Boothville, La., and Pascagoula, Miss. In New Orleans, rainfall totals ranged from less than an inch to slightly over 2 inches.
The storm’s biggest impact, so far, has been in the Gulf of Mexico oil fields. About half the Gulf’s normal daily oil production was cut as rigs were evacuated, though oil prices were down sharply Friday on sour economic news.
Federal authorities said 169 of the 617 staffed production platforms have been evacuated, along with 16 of the 62 drilling rigs. That reduced daily production by about 666,000 barrels of oil and 1.7 billion cubic feet of gas.
The National Hurricane Center said the center of Lee was about 180 miles west-southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River on Friday and moving north at just 3 mph.
Forecasters say that Lee’s maximum sustained winds increased slightly throughout the day to 45 mph and could get stronger.
Governors in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as the mayors of New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., declared states of emergency. Officials in several coastal Louisiana and Mississippi communities called for voluntary evacuations.