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Gulf Coast braces for heavy rain from tropical depression; up to 20 inches predicted
NEW ORLEANS (AP) ' A slow-moving tropical depression was slogging toward the Gulf coast Friday, packing walloping rains that could drench the region with up to 20 inches over the Labor day holiday weekend.
Louisiana's governor declared a state of emergency Thursday because of the threat of flash flooding from what the National Weather Service warned could be "efficient and torrential topical rains" for the next several days.
Tropical storm warnings were issued from Mississippi to Texas including New Orleans and flash flood warnings extended along the Alabama coast into the Florida Panhandle. The National Hurricane Center said the system will dump 10 to 15 inches of rain over southern areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama through Sunday and as much as 20 inches in some spots.
The water-logged system is tantalizingly close to Texas but still too far away to alleviate the state's worst drought since the 1950s. If the center moves mostly into Louisiana, as expected, winds on its west side will blow from land to open water and reduce the chance of rain in Texas, NWS meteorologist Dennis Cavanaugh in Fort Worth said. The hot, dry winds could spur fire danger across the state.
In Alabama, Gov. Robert Bentley didn't declare an emergency but ordered state agencies to be ready to respond if needed.
Morning skies were overcast with spotty rain on the Alabama coast Friday morning, but workers were still putting boats in the water for the Labor Day weekend at Sportsman Marina in Orange Beach, Ala.
"A lot of people go into a panic, but it's mainly just going to be a rainmaker," marina manager Ricky Garrett said. "We're really not taking any precautions. They're talking 5 to 15 inches of rain over a five-day period depending on who you listen to."
The depression could become Tropical Storm Lee, the 12th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season.
Forecasts were for landfall over the weekend on southern Louisiana's coast. The depression had maximum sustained winds of 35 mph (55 kph) Friday morning. It was drifting slowly north near 1 mph (2 kph) with the hurricane center predicting slow, possibly erratic motion.
"Wow. This could be a very heavy, prolific rainmaker," National Weather Service meteorologist Frank Revitte said.
According to a hurricane center chart, maximum sustained winds could reach 60 mph by Saturday, lower than hurricane strength of 74 mph.
As hurricane season is hitting its peak in the Atlantic, storm watchers were monitoring three disturbances. Besides the Gulf depression, Tropical Storm Katia (KAH'-tee-yah) was spinning in open waters. It weakened from a hurricane Thursday, though forecasters said it would again grow stronger.
It was about 750 miles (1,205 kilometers) east of the northern Leeward Islands and moving west-northwest near 15 mph (24 kph) with maximum sustained winds early Friday near 70 mph (110 kph). It could regain hurricane strength this weekend but forecasters said it's too early to tell if it would hit the U.S. It was expected to pass north of the Caribbean.
In yet another system, a slow-moving low pressure system about 450 miles (724 kilometers) south of Nova Scotia, Canada, had a 60 percent chance early Friday of becoming a tropical cyclone in the next two days.
They all come on the heels of Hurricane Irene, which brought destruction from North Carolina to New England late last month.
In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal said he was concerned about the serious threat of flash flooding in his state, leading to his emergency action. After devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005, nothing is taken for granted.
Craig Taffaro, president of coastal St. Bernard Parish, said some flood gates were being closed along bayous and residents were being warned to brace for heavy rain. Still, in a parish that was nearly wiped out six years ago by Katrina, Taffaro wasn't expecting a major event.
"We'd like the public to use this as a drill. Hopefully that's all it will be," he said early Thursday afternoon.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which operates major flood control structures at New Orleans, was monitoring developments but didn't plan on closing any flood control structures yet, spokesman Ricky Boyett said in an email.
Emergency officials along Mississippi's Gulf Coast expected to get plans in place Friday to deal with the effects from the tropical depression. Jackson County spokesman Ken Flanagan said conference calls were scheduled Friday with Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, along with weather officials.
Already, the storm has forced two major petroleum producers to remove crews from a handful of production platforms. Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil said they would also cut off a small amount of production. Both moves affect only a fraction of production.
Louisiana needs rain ' just not that much, that fast. Both Texas and Louisiana have been suffering through drought. New Orleans, which was least affected by the drought, already was being pelted by sporadic rain. More of a problem is stubborn marsh fire that has blanketed the city with smoke, though the rain will help extinguish it.
"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."
Louisiana's emergency action allows Jindal to activate the National Guard if necessary and generally makes it easier for parishes and the state to prepare. It also lets parishes ask the state to repay money spent to prepare and fight floods, and lets the state track such expenses, Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin said.
"Now is the time for Louisianians to make sure they have a game plan for themselves and their families should this storm strengthen," Jindal said in a statement.
On Grand Isle, the state's only inhabited barrier island, people were keeping an eye on the storm that has already brought rain there.
"We're watching it ' we're watching it closely," said June Brignac, owner of the Wateredge Beach Resort.
It's not as frightening as having a Category 2 or 3 hurricane bearing down, she said.
"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.
Katrina was the only storm to flood the suites in her motel, which is raised several feet from the ground, in the 20 years she has owned it.
It was still unclear where the system would head next, but it could bring much-needed relief to drought-plagued Texas.
Despite the weather, officials on Alabama's Pleasure Island were looking ahead to a busy Labor Day weekend. They expected the holiday weekend to wrap up one of the busiest summers on record as the Alabama Gulf Coast's economy recovers from last year's BP oil spill.
Small craft warnings were issued from northwest Florida to Texas as seas of at least 1 to 2 feet above normal were in the forecasts. Winds are likely to push tides up to three feet above normal.
Associated Press writer Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala., contributed to this report.