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Lee strengthens as it drenches Gulf Coast

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.

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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.

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 (compared) 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."

Lee comes less than a week after Hurricane Irene brought destruction to the Caribbean and the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, killing more than 50 people. It was too soon to tell if Hurricane Katia, out in the Atlantic, could endanger the U.S. It was expected to pass north of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean.

CBS News complete coverage: Hurricane Irene
Special Section: Hurricane Irene Videos

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.

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.

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."

Alabama

In Alabama, rough seas forced the Alabama State Port Authority to close the Port of Mobile. Pockets of heavy rain pounded the beaches Saturday, and strong winds whipped up the surf and bowed palm trees. But just a couple miles inland, wind and rain dropped significantly.

Beaches that would normally be packed with Labor Day tourists were nearly empty. Melinda Fondren, who moved to Gulf Shores from Birmingham about three months ago, visited the beach to experience her first tropical storm.

"I'm excited but a little afraid of the storm surge," she said, adding that her middle name is Lee. "I've been telling my family that I hit Gulf Shores twice."

At the Hangout, a beachside bar and restaurant, a healthy crowd gathered to watch the University of Alabama and Auburn University football season openers. Manager Matt Dagen said there should be more people on a holiday weekend.

"Obviously, it's not as good as we want because of the weather," he said, but added that rough weather sometimes gives his business a boost because people can't go to the beach.

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