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Forecasters: Gulf system could be next billion-dollar disaster

September 2, 2011 |  8:32 am

Click here for photos of Hurricane Irene. The tropical depression designated, for now, with the unlucky number 13, is parked in neutral just off the Gulf Coast, where meteorologists say it is likely to gain strength in the coming days, becoming a named storm or hurricane and creating flooding that could become the next billion-dollar disaster for the U.S.

As of Friday morning, Tropical Depression 13 was about 210 miles southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River and creeping toward the coast at about 1 mph, with the center expected to approach the Louisiana coast over the weekend, the National Hurricane Center reported.

Sustained winds are currently at 35 mph, but the system could gather enough strength to be classified a tropical storm later Friday, which means sustained winds of 39 to 73 mph.

PHOTOS: In the path of the Irene

A tropical storm warning is in effect from Pascagoula, Miss., to the Sabine Pass in Texas, a swath that includes the city of New Orleans, where residents Monday marked the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with song and prayer.

They also awoke Monday to the depressing news, courtesy of the Times-Picayune's Mark Schleifstein, that a new Army Corps of Engineers report will give the city's levee system a "near-failing grade," despite a $10-billion post-Katrina rebuilding job.

Meteorologists at AccuWeather are describing storm 13 as "an extensive, slow moving system" that could drop a foot of rain in New Orleans and build pressure on the city's levee system if heavy storm surge water is driven into Lake Pontchartrain -- although they note that at this point, the storm could move "just about anywhere."

The fate of Tropical Storm Katia, currently spinning out in the Atlantic, is similarly unclear. The storm, which was 750 miles east of the Northern Leeward Islands on Friday morning, was kicking up 70 mph winds but was not expected to threaten any land through early next week.

Katia has already been classified as a hurricane and downgraded, but it could reach hurricane strength again over the weekend, eventually posing a "serious danger" to Bermuda, AccuWeather reports.

Whether it moves on to threaten the U.S. East Coast, still reeling from its pummeling from Irene, is anyone's guess at this point.

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Photo: This NOAA satellite image taken Friday at 1:45 a.m. EDT shows clouds covering most of the Gulf of Mexico. Tropical Depression 13 is now located about 240 miles southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River with maximum sustained winds up to 35 mph. The system is expected to intensify as it continues moving northward and over the northern Gulf Coast. To the east, Katia has decreased to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 70 mph. The storm is now about 830 miles east of the northern Leeward Islands and continues moving northwest at 16 mph. Credit: Weather Underground