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Sluggish Lee drenches much of Gulf Coast

Tropical storm sets slow pace as it reaches land

Bill Provensal carried his shoes as he waded through a flood in New Orleans triggered by Tropical Storm Lee yesterday. Bill Provensal carried his shoes as he waded through a flood in New Orleans triggered by Tropical Storm Lee yesterday. (Bill Haber/Associated Press)
By Mary Foster
Associated Press / September 4, 2011

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JEAN LAFITTE, La. - Bands of heavy rain and strong wind gusts from Tropical Storm Lee knocked out power to thousands in Louisiana and Mississippi yesterday and prompted evacuations in bayou towns like Jean Lafitte, where water was lapping at the front doors of some homes.

The sluggish storm stalled just offshore for several hours before resuming its slow march northward late in the afternoon. Landfall was expected sometime yesterday, and 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.

To the east, coffers were suffering at many coastal businesses that depend on a strong Labor Day weekend. Alabama beaches that would normally be packed were largely empty, and rough seas closed the Port of Mobile. Mississippi’s coastal casinos, however, were open and reporting brisk business.

In Jean Laffite, water was a foot deep under Eva Alexie’s house, which is raised about eight feet off the flat ground.

“I should be used to this,’’ said Alexie, a 76-year-old storm veteran who lost a home to Hurricane Ike in 2008. “It happens pretty often. I just thank God it won’t be getting in my house this time.’’

She clutched an umbrella and a pair of blue rubber gloves as she walked down Louisiana Highway 45, on her way to her husband’s shrimp boat to clean a recent catch.

The center of the slow-moving storm was about 55 miles south-southwest of Lafayette, La., last night, spinning intermittent bands of stormy weather, alternating with light rain and occasional sunshine. It was moving north-northwest at about 4 miles per hour in the late afternoon.

Its maximum sustained winds dropped to 50 miles per hour, and their intensity was expected to decrease further by today. Tropical storm warnings stretched from the Louisiana-Texas state line to Destin, Fla.

The National Weather Service in Slidell said parts of New Orleans received between 6 and 9 inches of rain between Thursday morning and yesterday afternoon, and that some coastal Mississippi areas reported more than 6 inches. Nearly 10 inches had fallen in Pascagoula, Miss.

The Entergy utility company reported more than 37,000 customer outages at one point yesterday 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 yesterday, but pumps were sucking up the water and sending it into Lake Pontchartrain. Lee’s surge had not penetrated levees along the coast, said National Weather Service forecaster Robert Ricks in Slidell, La.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans warned residents to not let their guard down, saying: “We’re not out of the woods. Don’t go to sleep on this storm.’’

The storm was denting offshore energy production. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement said 237 oil and gas production platforms and 23 drilling rigs have been evacuated by Lee.

The agency estimates that about 60 percent of the current oil production in the Gulf and almost 55 percent of the natural gas production has been shut in.

To the east, coastal Mississippi officials expected their worst from the storm late yesterday.

“We’ve been getting some pretty good onshore rains,’’ said Jackson County emergency director Donald Langham.

Harrison County officials said travel on US Highway 90 had become hazardous because winds from Lee have pushed sand from beach onto the eastbound lanes and the rain has created a situation where drivers cannot see the roadway.