Rain-packed Tropical Storm Lee forms off Louisiana

MIAMI (AP) — A large storm system churning in the Gulf Of Mexico grew Friday into Tropical Storm Lee, beginning a weekend-long assault that could bring up to 20 inches (50 centimeters) 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 in 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.

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 (0.05 billion cubic meters) of gas.

Tropical storm warnings were issued from Alabama 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 165 miles (265 kilomters) west-southwest west-southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River on Friday and moving north at 5 mph (7 kph).

Forecasters say that Lee's maximum sustained winds had increased slightly throughout the day to 45 mph (75 kph), and could get stronger.

Governors in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as the mayors of New Orleans and Biloxi, Mississippi, declared states of emergency. evacuations.

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.

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.