Friday, September 2, 2011

Tropical Storm Lee triggers states of emergency along Gulf

From Tropical Storm Lee triggers states of emergency along Gulf
NEW ORLEANS — 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.

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."

Dubbed a "super soaker" by the National Weather Service, Tropical Storm Lee had 45 mph sustained winds at 5 p.m. ET and was already spreading rain across New Orleans and the rest of southern Louisiana.

"Wow. This could be a very heavy, prolific rainmaker," said NWS meteorologist Frank Revitte.

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.

In Louisiana, officials on Grand Isle and in Jean Lafitte, south of New Orleans, called for voluntary evacuations on Friday.

Moving northwest at just 2 mph, Lee was already massively wide — tropical storm force winds extend up to 200 miles from its center.

Tropical storm warnings were issued from Mississippi to Texas and 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 over portions of southern Louisiana tonight," it added.

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."

Story: Alabama coast braces for heavy rain from Tropical Storm Lee
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.

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