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New Orleans hopeful as Lee dumps rain on Gulf Coast

/ Source: staff and news service reports

Tropical Storm Lee was drenching New Orleans early Sunday, a test of city flood defenses bolstered after the disaster from Hurricane Katrina.

The National Weather Service in Slidell said parts of New Orleans received between 6 and 9 inches of rain between Thursday morning and Saturday afternoon, and that some coastal Mississippi areas reported more than 6 inches. Nearly 10 inches had fallen in Pascagoula, Miss.

Slivers of sunny weather Saturday afternoon brought some tourists out in New Orleans and drew some grumbling from some local businesses that advance reports on Lee may have been overdone. But officials warned residents against complacency.

"This storm is moving painfully slow," New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at a briefing Saturday afternoon. "Don't go to sleep on this storm," he added. "The message today is that we are not out of the woods."

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said in their 11 p.m. ET update that the storm was moving north-northwest at 2 mph after being stationary for a few hours earlier in the day.

Its center was about 85 miles west-southwest of Morgan City, with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph, down from 60 miles per hour in the afternoon. Its center was expected to come ashore sometime Sunday.

The prospect of flooding in low-lying New Orleans had evoked memories of Hurricane Katrina, which flooded 80 percent of the city, killed 1,500 people and caused more than $80 billion in damage. Half of the city lies below sea level and is protected by a system of levees and flood gates.

The storm could also bring heavy rain and flooding to Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle as it creeps eastward over the U.S. Labor Day holiday weekend.

Storm winds were already pushing Gulf waters inland, slamming barriers in low-lying areas and prompting mandatory evacuations in the coastal communities of Lafitte, Crown Point and Barataria.

A voluntary evacuation was ordered for trailers and residents of low-lying and flood-prone areas in Jackson County, Miss., where an emergency shelter was set to open Sunday morning. Officials also urged residents to stay off the roads due to flooding and low visibility from the storm.

Louisiana sees flooding
Low-lying parishes around New Orleans saw rising waters, which covered some roadways in Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, but no homes or businesses were threatened. Some residents in Jefferson Parish were ordered to evacuate.

In Jean Laffite, water was a foot deep under Eva Alexie's house, which is raised about eight feet off the flat ground.

"I should be used to this," said Alexie, a 76-year-old storm veteran who lost a home to Hurricane Ike in 2008. "It happens pretty often. I just thank God it won't be getting in my house this time."

She clutched an umbrella and a pair of blue rubber gloves as she walked down Louisiana Highway 45, on her way to her husband's shrimp boat to clean a recent catch.

About 6,000 homes and businesses were without electrical power Saturday evening, down from 35,000 in the morning, according to utility Entergy Corp. "All things considered, things have gone reasonably well," Entergy New Orleans spokesman Phillip Allison told NBC News.

Periodic breaks in the rainfall allowed the city's giant pumps to catch up with the water flow and clear standing water, said Jefferson Parish President John Young.

"Everything looks good," Young told local television. "The pumps are keeping up with the water. We are getting some street flooding."

Mississippi, Alabama drenched
To the east, coffers were suffering at many coastal businesses that depend on a strong Labor Day weekend. Alabama beaches that would normally be packed were largely empty, and rough seas closed the Port of Mobile. Mississippi's coastal casinos, however, were open and reporting brisk business.

In Mississippi, Harrison County officials said travel on U.S. Highway 90 had become hazardous because winds from Lee pushed sand from beach onto the eastbound lanes and the rain created a situation where drivers cannot see the roadway.

"This layer of sand has gotten up on the highway and you can't determine if you're on the road, up on the median or the curb," said emergency director Rupert Lacy.

Flooding in Hancock County left several roadways impassable, and the rain on parts of Interstate 10 at times has been so heavy that visibility was down to only a few feet.

Casinos along the coast remained open and reported brisk business despite the storm.

In Alabama, rough seas forced the closure of the Port of Mobile. Pockets of heavy rain pounded the beaches Saturday, and strong winds whipped up the surf and bowed palm trees. But just a couple miles inland, wind and rain dropped significantly.

Precautions were taken to secure anything that could be swept away by wind or waves, and Labor Day concerts and other festivities were canceled on Dauphin Island, a barrier island along the gulf.

"The weekend is literally a wash," Mayor Jeff Collier said. "It's really a shame that it happened on a holiday weekend."

At the Hangout, a beachside bar and restaurant, a healthy crowd gathered to watch the University of Alabama and Auburn University football season openers. Manager Matt Dagen said there should be more people on a holiday weekend.

"Obviously, it's not as good as we want because of the weather," he said, but added that rough weather sometimes gives his business a boost because people can't go to the beach.

Lee will weaken once it hits land, but it will lose strength more slowly than normal due to the marshy nature of the Louisiana coast, the hurricane center said.

Lee's northeasterly track could bring heavy rains to Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and the Appalachian Mountains next week.

About half the U.S. offshore oil production, all based in the Gulf of Mexico, and a third of offshore gas production were shut as of Friday, according to the U.S. government. Most of that output should quickly return once the storm passes.

Katia weakens
Meanwhile, Katia weakened to a tropical storm strength as it churned in the Atlantic Ocean, 430 miles east-northeast of the northern Leeward Islands. Katia had maximum winds of 70 mph, moving northwest at 10 miles per hour.

No land warnings were issued, but forecasters said life-threatening swells were affecting the Lesser Antilles and could reach Bermuda by Saturday night.