Tropical Storm Lee Hits Louisiana Coast

Tropical Storm Lee reached the southern Louisiana coast Sunday morning, pelting the region with heavy rains and strong winds.

Entergy crews working to restore power in New Orleans. Photo: Entergy Storm Center/Flickr

Bands of heavy rain and strong wind gusts from Tropical Storm Lee knocked out power to thousands in Louisiana and Mississippi and prompted evacuations in bayou towns such as Jean Lafitte, where water lapped at the front doors of some homes.

Governors in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as the mayors of New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., declared states of emergency. Officials in several coastal Louisiana and Mississippi communities called for voluntary evacuations.

As of 5 a.m. ET Sunday, Lee was about 80 miles west of Morgan City, Louisiana and about 50 miles southwest of Lafayette, Louisiana, according to the National Hurricane Center. “The center will move slowly over southern Louisiana today and tonight,” the hurricane center said.

The storm threatened to dump more than a foot of rain across the Gulf Coast and into the Southeast in coming days. No injuries were reported, but there were scattered instances of water entering low-lying homes and businesses in Louisiana.

“We have severe weather warnings and tornado warnings in effect for parts of the state, and residents everywhere need to use extreme caution,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Saturday. “Tropical Storm Lee is moving slowly, as expected, and we are already seeing flooded roads and other effects from rising water levels throughout South Louisiana.”

A surfer wipes out in the high surf during Tropical Storm Lee near the Russell-Fields Pier in Panama City Beach, Florida. Photo: Fisherbray/Flickr

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.

In New Orleans, about 70 miles east of Morgan City, the storm recalled Hurricane Katrina, which flooded 80 percent of the city, killed 1,500 people and caused more than $80 billion in damage to the popular tourist destination.

The Entergy utility company reported more than 37,000 customer outages at one point Saturday morning but that was down to below 18,000 by afternoon as the utility restored electricity. Cleco Corp., another major utility, reported 3,500 outages.

In New Orleans, sporadic downpours caused some street flooding in low-lying areas early Saturday, but pumps were sucking up the water and sending it into Lake Pontchartrain. Lee’s surge so far had not penetrated levees along the coast, said National Weather Service forecaster Robert Ricks in Slidell, La.

Residents who have survived killer hurricanes such as Betsy, Camille and Katrina 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.”

Half the city lies below sea level and is protected by a system of levees and flood gates. The levees can process about one inch of rainfall per hour and the storm’s slow-moving nature remained a worry, officials said. There were isolated reports of flooding in roads and homes.

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.

Over 60 percent of U.S. offshore oil production, all based in the Gulf of Mexico, and nearly 55 percent of offshore gas production were shut as of Friday, according to the U.S. government. Most of that output should quickly return once the storm passes.

Major offshore producers like Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp and BP Plc shut down platforms and evacuated staff earlier this week. Shell and Anadarko Petroleum Corp started to return workers to offshore platforms in the western Gulf of Mexico on Saturday.

No injuries or fatalities were reported in Louisiana, but rough waters off Galveston Island in Texas led to the drowning death of a 34-year-old man, an island official said. [via Reuters, CNN and ABC News]

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