NEW ORLEANS – Tornado warnings have been issued for  New Orleans and its surrounding areas as heavy rains from Tropical Storm Lee  began falling in southern Louisiana Saturday.

The storm’s center is trudging 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 45 miles south of New Iberia and moving north-northwest at 7 mph. It  was expected to cross the Louisiana coast by Saturday night and pass into the  southern portion of the state on Sunday.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center say  that Lee’s maximum sustained winds had increased to 60 miles per hour Saturday  morning. They said some slight strengthening was possible before landfall.

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.

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