A strengthening Tropical Storm Lee lurched toward the U.S. Gulf Coast on Saturday, dumping heavy rain on Louisiana and threatening extensive flooding that will put the New Orleans levee system to the test.
Oil companies evacuated workers from offshore rigs ahead of the arrival of Lee, a disorganized but major rainmaker, while Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency.
"Flooding is our primary concern," Jindal said on Friday, urging residents to "prepare for the worst and hope for the best."
Officials warned that the slow-moving storm could bring the same kind of flooding that residents in the northeast are still grappling with after Hurricane Irene tore up the U.S. East Coast last weekend, leaving nearly 50 people dead and millions of households without power.
With experts forecasting the storm will turn to the northeast and push inland, one of the biggest dangers from Lee could be in the Appalachians.
"If we get the 12.5 to 25 centimeters that come out into a tropical storm in that kind of terrain, the flash flooding is fast and it's violent," Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, told reporters.
At 1200 GMT Saturday, Lee was 70 kilometers south of New Iberia, Louisiana, packing sustained winds of 60 miles per hour, the NHC said.
"Some slight strengthening is possible this morning before the center moves well inland over Louisiana this afternoon," the center warned.
With some areas forecast to receive up to half a meter of rain over the Labor Day holiday weekend, residents of coastal states as well as landlocked Kentucky and Tennessee should prepare themselves for extensive flooding, he cautioned.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported several Louisiana parishes were distributing sandbags and issuing evacuation orders for the lowest-lying areas.
Lee was battering the Gulf Coast six years after the region was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
The levee system around New Orleans failed after Katrina, putting much of the city underwater. More than 1,500 people died.
On Monday, Katrina's sixth anniversary, the Times-Picayune reported that an upcoming Army Corps of Engineers report gives the levee system a "near-failing grade," despite a $10 billion post-Katrina rebuilding job.
The intense rain that Lee is already dumping on the city is expected to provide the most severe test of the levee and canal systems at Lake Pontchartrain and elsewhere since Hurricane Gustav came close to overwhelming the levees three years ago.
Earlier this week New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the water pumps that are key to the city's flood mitigation are "100 percent operational."
Meanwhile, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour declared a state of emergency in several counties, urging residents to prepare well in advance.
"Do not underestimate the impact of this system of tropical weather," he said.
The weather service is also monitoring Hurricane Katia in the Atlantic Ocean. Forecast models vary, and Katia is still well out to sea, but some tracks show the hurricane nearing and perhaps clipping the U.S. eastern seaboard sometime next week.
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