NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A large storm system churning in the Gulf Of Mexico grew Friday into Tropical Storm Lee, beginning a holiday 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 during the Labor Day holiday in 2008.
Governors in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as the mayor of New Orleans, declared states of emergency. Officials in several coastal Louisiana communities called for voluntary evacuations.
Residents who have survived killer hurricanes such as Katrina in 2005 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."
Lee comes less than a week after Hurricane Irene killed more than 40 people along the East Coast 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 of gas.
Tropical storm warning flags were flying from Mississippi to Texas and flash flood warnings extended along the Alabama coast into the Florida Panhandle. Lee had winds of 40 miles (64 kilometers) per hour — minimal tropical storm strength.
The National Hurricane Center said the center of Lee was about 185 miles (295 km) southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River on Friday and moving north at just 2 mph (4 kph). Its center was expected to make landfall in Louisiana over the weekend.
Forecasters say that Lee's maximum sustained winds have increased to 45 mph (75 kph), from 40 mph (65 kph), and could increase further.
In New Orleans' central business district, Friday seemed a typical day. Employees at big-box home improvement stores said residents weren't rushing in to stock up on supplies.
Merchants, however, worried the storm would dampen the Southern Decadence festival, an annual gay lifestyle fixture that rings cash registers on Labor Day weekend. Ann Sonnier, shift manager of Jester's bar, said receipts were disappointing so far.
"People are probably scared to death to come here after Katrina," she said.