Lee Lashes Gulf Coast

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Tropical Storm Lee slogged on shore along the Gulf Coast Saturday, drenching Labor Day weekend plans and shutting down offshore oil rigs. Forecasters are warning that up to 20 inches of rain could fall in some places.

AUDIE CORNISH, host: One week after Hurricane Irene swamped much of the East Coast, Tropical Storm Lee is drenching the Gulf Coast. The storm is slowly moving across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, leaving thousands without power and prompting evacuations in low-lying bayou towns. Forecasters are warning that up 20 inches of rain could fall in some places, and with the storm's meandering path, there could be extensive flooding. Authorities say there have been no serious injuries. Still, Tropical Storm Lee has forced many in the Gulf to change their plans for the long holiday weekend. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: The beaches in Alabama and Mississippi are normally busy over Labor Day weekend, but not this year. Strong winds and heavy rain have kept tourists away. Authorities said driving on Highway 90 near Gulfport, Mississippi was treacherous, with low visibility and in some places sand washed up on the road. Over in New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu offered his residents an update on the storm Saturday afternoon.

Mayor MITCH LANDRIEU: We are expecting 15 to 20 inches of rain in the New Orleans region as a result of the tropical storm. And as all of us who have been through this know, it's not how much we get, but how much we get in a short period of time.

BRADY: Fortunately this storm hit in bursts. There were a few breaks where the sun could actually be seen peeking through the clouds. With no major problems, Landrieu had the luxury of focusing on more mundane issues.

LANDRIEU: Anything you can do to assist - if, for example, your garbage has gotten picked up, it would be great to go out and pick up your garbage can because if another band comes in, you don't want your garbage can to float down the river.

BRADY: This storm forced a lot of people to change weekend plans. Tiger Hammond is president of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO, which canceled its Labor Day picnic.

TIGER HAMMOND: We'd either have to be out there in hip boots or shrimp boots because that's the only you'd have gotten to our picnic grounds this year. 'Cause you can have two to three inches of rain and they have street flooding over in the City Park area.

BRADY: Hammond says the picnic has been rescheduled for October 15th. At the Lake Pontchartrain Harbor and Marina, Frank Hijuelos says he also had to cancel a Labor Day celebration scheduled for today. Hijuelos says this has been an unusual storm.

FRANK HIJUELOS: It's been erratic. We'd have cells passing over us, which would bring high winds and a lot of rain. And then it would slack for a while. In fact, as we're speaking right now, there's virtually no rain and the winds have calmed down a little bit.

BRADY: And then all the sudden it would clear up, only to see another band of rain come through a short time later. Hijuelos says the storm did raise the level in Lake Pontchartrain though.

HIJUELOS: The water is virtually at the top of the docks or slightly over the docks in different locations.

BRADY: Out on the Gulf of Mexico, the storm put a big dent in oil and natural gas production. Regulators say 60 percent of the Gulf's oil production was shut down ahead of the storm and about 55 percent of the natural gas production is down. It could be another day or two before companies get back out to those rigs to inspect for damage. Larry Wall is a former spokesman for an oil industry trade group. He's followed the offshore petroleum business for decades and says companies don't mess around. Even if a storm looks like it might be small they want to get crews out of harm's way.

LARRY WALL: You can be on a platform that is 20 feet above the surface of the water or 40 feet above the surface of the water and get a 50 foot wave. That's not impossible. You don't want to be on that platform when that wave hits.

BRADY: It's unlikely the decreased oil production in the Gulf will have much effect on gas prices at the pump. Even as the storm approached Friday, oil traders were much more concerned about a faltering economy. That tends to lead to less consumption, which sent oil prices down. Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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