NEW ORLEANS — A large storm system in the Gulf of Mexico grew Friday into Tropical Storm Lee, beginning a Labor Day weekend assault that could bring up to 20 inches of rain in some spots from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle.
The storm was expected to make landfall on the central Louisiana coast late today and turn east toward New Orleans, where it would provide the biggest test of rebuilt levees since Hurricane Gustav struck on Labor Day 2008.
Residents who have survived killer hurricanes didn't expect Lee to live up to the legacy of Betsy, Camille and Katrina.
"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.
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 whether Hurricane Katia, out in the Atlantic, could endanger the United States. That storm is expected to intensify over the next five days into a Category 2 system.
Late Friday, Katia was about 575 miles east of the Leeward Islands, moving northwest at 12 mph with sustained winds of 75 mph.
Lee, the 12th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, began dumping rain over southeastern Louisiana, southern Mississippi and Alabama on Friday evening.
About 21/2 inches of rain fell in some places on the Gulf Coast, including Boothville, La., and Pascagoula, Miss.
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.
Tropical storm warning flags were flying from Mississippi to Texas, and flash-flood warnings extended along the Alabama coast into the Florida Panhandle.
Forecasters say that Lee's maximum sustained winds had increased slightly to 45 mph, and could get stronger.
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.