A slow-moving system in the Gulf of Mexico strengthened Friday to become a tropical storm, as the Big Easy and other Gulf cities prepared for up to 20 inches of rain by unclogging storm drains and upping flood defenses.
"Prepare for the worst, let's hope for the best," New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu urged residents as he declared a state of emergency Friday afternoon. The governors of Louisiana and Mississippi also declared emergencies.
The city has closed flood gates and staged rescue boats ahead of what is expected to be "localized flooding" in some areas over the next five days. New Orleans is also hosting 200,000 visitors attending several conventions this weekend.
Late Friday, Lee, packing sustained winds of 45 mph, was centered 165 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi River and 150 miles southeast of Cameron, La. The storm was picking up speed, moving erratically north at 5 mph, up from just 3 mph earlier in the day. Lee was already massively wide — tropical storm force winds extended up to 200 miles from its center. Lakefront Airport in New Orleans felt a 41 mph gust.
Tropical storm warnings were issued from the Alabama-Florida borer west to Sabine Pass, Texas, including New Orleans. Flash flood warnings were extended along the Alabama coast into the Florida Panhandle. The National Hurricane Center said the system will dump 10 to 15 inches of rain over southern Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama over the next five days and as much as 20 inches in some spots.
"These rains are expected to cause extensive flooding, especially in urban areas," the hurricane center stated.
"Isolated tornadoes are possible tonight over portions of southern Louisiana and extreme southern Mississippi," it added.
The storm was expected to make landfall on the central Louisiana coast late Saturday and turn east toward New Orleans, where it would provide the biggest test of rebuilt levees since Hurricane Gustav struck on Labor Day 2008.
A storm surge of 3 to 5 feet was forecast along the Louisiana coast.
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 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."
Dubbed a "super soaker" by the National Weather Service, rain spread across New Orleans and the rest of southern Louisiana Friday night.
"Wow. This could be a very heavy, prolific rainmaker," said NWS meteorologist Frank Revitte.
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.
Gusts near 60 mph were reported on oil rigs in the Gulf and National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read, asked if Lee could become a hurricane with winds greater than 74 mph, said "I wouldn't rule that out."
The storm earlier prompted oil and gas producers to shut down offshore platforms and evacuate workers, halting about half of the Gulf's oil production and a third of natural gas.
Federal authorities said 169 of the 617 staffed production platforms have been evacuated, along with 16 of the 62 drilling rigs. That's reduced daily production by about 666,000 barrels of oil and 1.7 billion cubic feet of gas.
In Louisiana, officials on Grand Isle and in Jean Lafitte, south of New Orleans, called for voluntary evacuations on Friday.
No rain for Texas
The water-logged system is tantalizingly close to Texas but too far away to alleviate the state's drought.
If the center moves mostly into Louisiana, as expected, winds on its west side will blow from land to open water and reduce the chance of rain in Texas, said NWS meteorologist Dennis Cavanaugh. The hot, dry winds could even spur fire danger across the state.
In Alabama, Gov. Robert Bentley didn't declare an emergency but ordered state emergency management and other agencies to be ready to respond if needed.
Morning skies were overcast with spotty rain on the Alabama coast Friday, but workers were still putting boats in the water for the Labor Day weekend at Sportsman Marina in Orange Beach.
"A lot of people go into a panic, but it's mainly just going to be a rainmaker," marina manager Ricky Garrett said. "We're really not taking any precautions. They're talking 5 to 15 inches of rain over a five-day period depending on who you listen to."
The Weather Channel said on its website that the system could later cause flooding as far inland as the southern Appalachian Mountains.
In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal said he was concerned about flash flooding.
The prospects of flooding in low-lying New Orleans elicited memories of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which flooded 80 percent of the city, killed 1,500 people and caused more than $80 billion in damage.
But Lee's flooding potential is much lower and should spur nothing more than localized flooding in coastal and low-lying areas, New Orleans safety officials said.
Craig Taffaro, president of coastal St. Bernard Parish, said some flood gates were being closed along bayous and residents were being warned to brace for heavy rain.
Still, in a parish that was nearly wiped out by Katrina, Taffaro wasn't expecting a major event.
"We'd like the public to use this as a drill. Hopefully that's all it will be," he said Thursday.
New Orleans already was being pelted by sporadic rain, which could extinguish a stubborn marsh fire that has blanketed the city with smoke.
"Sometimes you get what you ask for," Landrieu joked Thursday. "Unfortunately it looks like we're going to get more than we needed."
Moreover, New Orleans' levees could be tested by the slow-moving system.
"It's not just the rainfall, but perhaps days of pressure on levees, as storm surge water could be driven into Lake Pontchartrain," Accuweather.com Meteorologist Mark Mancuso said in a statement.
The New Orleans Levee District closed 13 floodgates to help prevent tidal flooding into Lake Pontchartrain.
Floodgates are being closed in surrounding parishes as well.
Jindal: Get a game plan
Louisiana's emergency action allows Jindal to activate the National Guard if necessary and generally makes it easier for parishes and the state to prepare.
It also lets parishes ask the state to repay money spent to prepare and fight floods, and lets the state track such expenses.
"Now is the time for Louisianians to make sure they have a game plan for themselves and their families should this storm strengthen," Jindal said on Thursday.
On Grand Isle, the state's only inhabited barrier island, people were keeping an eye on the storm that has already brought rain there.
"We're watching it — we're watching it closely," said June Brignac, owner of the Wateredge Beach Resort.
It's not as frightening as having a Category 2 or 3 hurricane bearing down, she said.
"But we're still concerned with all the rain that's coming in, causing possible flooding of the highway going out. If we don't leave, we may be trapped here until it's completely past," she said.