NEW ORLEANS - Slow-moving Tropical Storm Lee brought torrential rains to the Louisiana coast Saturday as the heart of the storm neared New Orleans, where flood defenses were expected to be put to the test.
The storm was expected to bring up to 20 inches of rain to southeast Louisiana over the next few days, including to New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
The center of Lee was stalled 45 miles southwest of Morgan City, with maximum winds of 60 miles per hour, the hurricane center said. Lee's winds were expected to stay below the 74 mph threshold of hurricane strength as the storm crawls ashore Saturday afternoon or evening.
The prospect of flooding in low-lying New Orleans evoked memories of Hurricane Katrina, which flooded 80 percent of the city, killed 1,500 people and caused more than $80 billion in damage. Half of the city lies below sea level and is protected by a system of levees and flood gates.
The city's extensive levee system is capable of processing about one inch of rainfall per hour, but the storm's slow-moving nature could bring challenges, officials said.
The storm dampened business at Mandina's, a popular restaurant on Canal Street that was rebuilt after being nearly destroyed by Katrina's floodwaters.
"Ever since Katrina it seems like the weather people are a little over-excited about the bad weather," restaurant manager Martial Voitier said. "We had a terrible dinner last night, and lunch is not looking any better."
The storm could also bring heavy rains and flooding to Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle as it creeps eastward over the U.S. Labor Day holiday weekend.
Low-lying parishes around New Orleans saw rising waters, which covered some roadways in Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, but no homes or businesses were threatened. Some residents in Jefferson Parish were ordered to evacuate.
Periodic breaks in the rainfall allowed the city's giant pumps to catch up with the water flow and clear standing water, said Jefferson Parish President John Young.
"Everything looks good," Young told local television. "The pumps are keeping up with the water. We are getting some street flooding."
About 35,000 houses were without electrical power due to the storm, according to utility Entergy Corp.
Lee will weaken once it hits land, but it will lose strength more slowly than normal due to the marshy nature of the Louisiana coast, the hurricane center said.
Lee's northeasterly track could bring heavy rains to Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and the Appalachian Mountains next week.
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 Saturday.
Low-lying refineries in Louisiana that collectively account for 12 percent of U.S. refining capacity were watching the storm closely, but reported no disruptions.
ConocoPhillips' 247,000 barrel per day refinery in Alliance, Louisiana, 25 miles south of New Orleans was operating normally as Lee moved overhead, the company said.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Katia weakened to near tropical storm strength as it churned in the Atlantic Ocean, 485 miles east-northeast of the northern Leeward Islands. Katia had maximum winds of 75 mph, moving northwest at 10 miles per hour.
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.