By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Authorities issued mandatory evacuation orders for low-lying areas south of New Orleans on Friday as a weakened Tropical Storm Karen closed in on the Louisiana coast after disrupting U.S. energy output in the Gulf of Mexico.
Karen's top winds were holding at 50 mph, down from 65 mph a day earlier, and National Hurricane Center forecasters in Miami said the storm was expected to strengthen somewhat but remain a tropical storm.
Oil output in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico had been cut in half as oil and gas firms shut platforms and evacuated some workers in preparation for the storm. The Gulf accounts for about 19 percent of U.S. oil production and 6 percent of natural gas output.
The mayor of Grand Isle, Louisiana, clamped a mandatory evacuation on the popular vacation and fishing destination on a barrier island south of New Orleans. Evacuations were also ordered in Lafourche Parish in the south, and residents in much of Plaquemines Parish, southeast of New Orleans, were told to be out of their homes before nightfall.
The Sand Dollar Motel and Marina on Grand Isle was a frenzy of activity on Friday as boaters scrambled to get their vessels to higher ground and marina employees secured the premises.
"It's already pouring here and the wind is real strong," said marina owner Susan Gaspard, who added that squalls had been hitting all morning.
Karen's projected path shifted slightly westward and it was expected to move ashore over Louisiana on Saturday night and into Mississippi and then Alabama on Sunday.
By late Friday afternoon, the storm was centered about 235 miles south-southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River. It was moving north-northwest but was forecast to turn to the northeast as it crossed the coast.
At the Port of New Orleans, cargo operations continued normally but the harbor pilots who guide ships through the mouth of the Mississippi had ceased operations.
"No ships are coming in or out the mouth of the river," said port spokesman Matt Gresham.
Carnival Cruise Line officials announced that two ships that had been due to arrive in New Orleans over the weekend, the Carnival Elation and Carnival Conquest, could be delayed until Monday. Guests onboard were being kept apprised and the ships were sailing at a safe and comfortable distance from the storm, the company said.
The governors of Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama declared states of emergency to speed storm preparations and the Federal Emergency Management Agency recalled some furloughed workers to assist.
The storm was expected to dump up to 6 inches of rain in its path and to push a surge of seawater over the shoreline, the hurricane center said.
"The tide's already high, so we know we will get water. We're just trying to put everything up as high as we can," said Gaspard on Grand Isle.
Ralph Atkins, owner of Southern Fish & Oyster Co on a downtown dock in Mobile, Alabama, said he expected to see a "good squall" from Karen but nothing he couldn't deal with.
"Our big trouble is water. Water can build up and make it bad," Atkins said. "It's just another day in the fish business. Nature just needs to take a bath every now and then," he added.
At Alabama's Grand Mariner Marina on Dog River and Mobile Bay, boaters were tying down the larger vessels with double ropes and putting the smaller ones on trailers to haul them up the river to sheltered coves.
"It's like New York City at lunch time here. We are really busy," said marina manager Steve Penny. "We are doing everything we can to make room for 4 to 6 feet of water. Anything we can move, we get out."
Marina workers were adding fuel to their 8,000-gallon (30,280-liter) tanks to weigh them down and keep them from floating away.
A hurricane watch for the coast from Grand Isle, Louisiana, to Destin, Florida was dropped. Tropical storm watches and warnings were still in effect in other areas including metropolitan New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain. Tropical storms carry winds of 39 mph to 73 mph.
(Reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami, Verna Gates in Birmingham, Alabama; and Jeanine Prezioso in New York; Editing by Tom Brown and Jim Loney)