By JANET MCCONNAUGHEY, The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- 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 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.
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."
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 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.
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 has been 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's reduced daily production by about 666,000 barrels of oil and 1.7 billion cubic feet of gas.
Kevin Lucas, an offshore worker from Lafayette, La., was evacuated Thursday by boat from a production platform. He was in the New Orleans' French Quarter on Friday. "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.
The National Hurricane Center said the center of Lee was about 185 miles (295 km) southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River on Friday and moving north at just 2 mph (4 kph). Its center was expected to make landfall in Louisiana over the weekend.
Forecasters say that Lee's maximum sustained winds have increased to 45 mph (75 kph), from 40 mph (65 kph), and could increase further.
Governors in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as the mayor of New Orleans, declared states of emergency. Officials in several coastal Louisiana and Mississippi communities called for voluntary evacuations.
The Army Corps of Engineers was closing floodgates along the Harvey Canal, a commercial waterway in suburban New Orleans, but had not moved to shut a massive flood structure on the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet shipping channel.
The MRGO was a major conduit for Katrina's storm surge, which overwhelmed levees and flooded St. Bernard and the city's Lower 9th Ward.
City officials said they expect some 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 federal dollars have been spent on new levees and other flood protection.
In New Orleans' central business district, Friday seemed a typical day. Employees at big-box home improvement stores said residents weren't rushing in to stock up on supplies.
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 didn't let it dampen their spirits.
"I didn't even know about it," said Kyla Holley of Madison, Wis., who along with husband Rob was 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.
Morning skies were overcast with spotty rain on the Alabama coast Friday morning, but workers were still putting boats in the water for the Labor Day weekend at Sportsman Marina in Orange Beach, Ala.
"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."
On the Mississippi coast, tourism officials said there was no spike in cancellations for the holiday weekend at hotels and casinos.
On Grand Isle, Louisiana's only inhabited barrier island, people kept an eye on the storm that was already bringing rain there. It's not as frightening as having a Category 2 or 3 hurricane bearing down, said June Brignac, owner of the Wateredge Beach Resort.
"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.
The rain, however, had a silver lining. In New Orleans, it was helping to tamp down a stubborn marsh fire that for several days has sent pungent smoke wafting across the area.
Southern Louisiana needs rain - just not that much, that fast.
"Sometimes you get what you ask for," New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. "Unfortunately it looks like we're going to get more than we needed."
Associated Press writers Kevin McGill and Alan Sayre in New Orleans, Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala., and Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.