NEW ORLEANS – Bands of rain from Tropical Storm Lee were pelting the Gulf Coast on Saturday as the storm's center trudged slowly toward land, where businesses were already beginning to suffer on what would normally be a bustling holiday weekend. The storm could bring as many as 20 inches of rain to some areas.
Tropical storm warning flags were flying from Mississippi to Texas and flash flood warnings extended along the Alabama coast into the Florida Panhandle. The storm's slow forward movement means that its rain clouds should have more time to disgorge themselves on any cities in their path.
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 on Labor Day 2008.
Still, residents didn't expect the tropical storm to live up to the legacy of some of the killer hurricanes that have hit the city.
"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."
The outer bands of Lee, the 12th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, began dumping rain over southeastern Louisiana, southern Mississippi and Alabama on Friday.
By the evening, 2 1/2 inches of rain had fallen in some places on the Gulf Coast, including Boothville, La., and Pascagoula, Miss. In New Orleans, rainfall totals ranged from less than an inch to slightly over 2 inches, depending on the neighborhood.
The coming storm began washing out Labor Day weekend festivities, with cancelations of parades and other events in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Ala. In Louisiana, programming was canceled at state parks and historic sites in the southern part of the state.
Merchants 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.
Some tourists were caught off guard by Lee, but didn't let it dampen their spirits.
"I didn't even know about it," said Kyla Holley of Madison, Wis., who along with husband Rob was in town for the Labor Day weekend holiday. "But it wouldn't have stopped us from coming."
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.
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.
The National Hurricane Center said the center of Lee was about 170 miles (275 km) west-southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River on Friday and moving north at just 5 mph (7 kph).
Forecasters say that Lee's maximum sustained winds had increased slightly by early Saturday morning to 50 mph (80 kph), and could get stronger.
Governors in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as the mayor of New Orleans, declared states of emergency. Officials in several coastal Louisiana and Mississippi communities called for voluntary evacuations.
The Army Corps of Engineers was closing floodgates along the Harvey Canal, a commercial waterway in suburban New Orleans, but had not moved to shut a massive flood structure on the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet shipping channel.
The MRGO was a major conduit for Katrina's storm surge, which overwhelmed levees and flooded St. Bernard and the city's Lower 9th Ward.
City officials said they expect some street flooding but no levee problems. Lee's storm surge, projected around 4 to 5 feet, is far short of the 20-feet-plus driven by Katrina. Billions of federal dollars have been spent on new levees and other flood protection.
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 the Mississippi coast, tourism officials said there was no spike in cancellations for the holiday weekend at hotels and casinos.
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.
The rain, however, had a silver lining. In New Orleans, it was helping to tamp down a stubborn marsh fire that for several days has sent pungent smoke wafting across the area.
Southern Louisiana needs rain -- just not that much, that fast.
"Sometimes you get what you ask for," New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. "Unfortunately it looks like we're going to get more than we needed."