Tropical Storm Lee gathers strength, pounds Louisiana with rain
Thick sheets of rain from Tropical Storm Lee pounded southern Louisiana on Saturday morning as the storm continued to loiter just offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, gathering strength with sustained winds approaching 60 mph.
The storm is expected to cause extensive flooding in southern Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, with rainfall of 20 inches expected in some areas.
The National Weather Service, in a Saturday morning bulletin, said the center of the storm should hit the Louisiana coast in the morning or early afternoon, then move slowly across southern Louisiana on Sunday.
Officials in the region have taken the threat seriously, with states of emergency declared in Louisiana and Mississippi, and voluntary evacuations called for in some low-lying areas. In the New Orleans area, officials posted online a list of streets prone to flooding. They also put swift-water rescue teams on standby, though authorities said they are confident that the levee system will hold, bolstered by a multibillion-dollar upgrade since its catastrophic failure after 2005's Hurricane Katrina.
Some in New Orleans weren't letting the weather get in the way of a good time. The yearly gay pride party known as Southern Decadence appeared to be in full swing Friday night, said Vernon Tucker, a cashier at the Quartermaster Store, the Bourbon Street cafe at the heart of that street's gay party strip that is also known as the "Nellie Deli."
"It's been just raining sheets all night," Tucker said in a phone interview Saturday morning. "Occasionally the winds were almost blowing it sideways -- and with the Decadence fest in full swing, you could literally say it was raining men. There were lots of leather-clad, half-naked men being blown around by the rain and wind."
Though traumatic memories of Katrina probably have many on edge here, a likely, and not unprecedented, scenario for New Orleans will be a weekend with a lot of water in some streets as the pumping system works to clear it out.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu has given New Orleans residents the OK to park their cars this weekend on the raised medians that locals call "neutral grounds."
"It's not a time to panic," Landrieu said at a news conference. "It's time to prepare for what could occur."
A tropical storm warning is in effect for the stretch of the Gulf Coast between the Alabama-Florida border and the Sabine Pass in Texas. A tropical storm watch is in effect from the Alabama-Florida border east to Destin, Fla.
Alex Sosnowski, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather.com, wrote Friday that the storm "has the potential to be the next billion-dollar disaster for the U.S., by way of epic flooding."
The storm has already affected oil and gas production. By early afternoon, evacuations had taken place at 27% of the 617 manned platforms in the gulf, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
Lee also sidelined National Guard troops battling a marsh fire in eastern New Orleans, but Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said the storm was expected to put the fire out.
View Hurricane Katia and Tropical Storm Lee in a larger map
-- Richard Fausset
Photo: Pooling water from rains of approaching Tropical Storm Lee are seen Friday as a streetcar passes through Lee Circle in New Orleans. Credit: Gerald Herbert / Associated Press