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Lee strengthens as it drenches Gulf Coast

Workers hand off sandbags to to to stop flooding waters from Bayou Barataria encroaching on homes and businesses in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Lee in the town of Jean Lafitte, La., just outside New Orleans, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011. Bands of heavy rain and strong wind gusts from Tropical Storm Lee knocked out power to thousands in south Louisiana and Mississippi and prompted evacuations in bayou towns like Jean Lafitte. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Gerald Herbert

Last Updated 5:21 p.m. ET

Bands of heavy rain and strong wind gusts from Tropical Storm Lee knocked out power to thousands in Louisiana and Mississippi on Saturday 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 later in the day, and the storm threatened to dump more than a foot of rain across the Gulf Coast and into the Southeast in coming days. Its slow pace means the clouds will have more time to drop rain on cities in their path.

No injuries were reported, but there were scattered reports of water entering low-lying homes and businesses.

Water was a foot deep under the house of 76-year-old Eva Alexie, whose home is raised about eight feet off the flat ground.

"I should be used to this," said Alexie, a storm veteran who lost a home to Hurricane Ike in 2008. "It happens pretty often. I just think God it won't be getting in my house this time."

At 5:00 p.m. ET Saturday the center of the slow-moving storm was about 60 miles west-southwest of Morgan City, La., spinning intermittent bands of stormy weather, alternating with light rain and occasional sunshine. Its maximum sustained winds were 60 mph.

The tropical storm warning has been expanded to include areas from Destin, Fla., westward to Sabine Pass, Texas, including New Orleans, Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas. Tropical storm conditions are expected to continue over portions of the area tonight into Sunday ... and possibly into Monday.

The National Weather Service in Slidell reported two-day rain totals approaching 9 inches in parts of south Louisiana and more than 5 inches near the Mississippi coast. The Entergy utility company reported more than 37,000 customer outages at one point Saturday morning but that was down to below 29,000 by midday as the utility restored electricity. Cleco Corp., another major utility, reported 3,400 outages.

In New Orleans, sporadic downpours caused some street flooding in low-lying areas early Saturday, reported CBS News correspondent Bigad Shaban, 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.

Tornado warnings were issued overnight in Louisiana and south Mississippi but Ricks said there were no confirmed touchdowns. So far, damage appeared confined to downed power lines and trees.

According to CBS News hurricane consultant David Bernard, with slow-moving Lee it's all about the rain: The storm's slow movement could mean as much as 20 inches through the weekend, bringing high levels to Lake Pontchartrain and some of the bayou areas south of New Orleans. Tornadoes are also possible through tonight in portions of southern Louisiana, southern Mississippi, southern Alabama and the far western 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.

Video: Floods threaten La.

Since Katrina flooded 80% of the city six years ago, $10 billion has been invested in flood protection. Lee will be the first storm to test the system.

On "The Early Show on Saturday Morning," Col. Edward Fleming of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who is in charge of New Orleans' massive levee rebuilding project, said the levee system can take a strong storm like Lee.

"Absolutely. The system was designed to be able to protect against the impact of a 100-year storm, and this storm is nowhere close to that," Col. Fleming told anchor Russ Mitchell. "It's going to be a big rain maker, obviously lots of winds as you can see, but in terms of surge it won't equate up to the 100-year storm.

"We pay close attention to the rains, and we're tied in very tight with the City of New Orleans. We assist them with evacuating the rain water. The city pumps it into the outfall canals, and then we take it from the outfall canals and pump it into Lake Pontchartrain, so evacuating the rain water from the greater New Orleans area is our biggest chore right now."

Lee'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 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.