- (Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder)
Forecasters are debating whether or not Tropical Storm Lee in the Gulf of Mexico has the potential to be the next billion-dollar disaster for the United States, by way of major flooding beginning in the Deep South.
The National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center are also issuing advisories on Hurricane Katia in the Atlantic.
There are multiple advisories for Tropical Storm Lee in the Gulf of Mexico, which is expected to produce heavy rain over southern Louisiana, southern Mississippi, and southern Alabama through the weekend.
People in states along the U.S. Gulf Coast region braced Friday afternoon for strong winds and up to 20 inches of rain as Tropical Storm Lee slowly made its way inland.
The storm, which strengthened from a tropical system Friday afternoon, could bring winds of 65 mph when it makes landfall this weekend, CNN meteorologist Sean Morris said.
Louisiana and ten of its parishes declared states of emergency, according to Gov. Bobby Jindal. LaFourche Parish and the city of Grand Isle issued voluntary evacuation orders, he said, while New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu also declared a state of emergency.
"This is going to be a slow-moving storm. It's going to bring a lot of rain," Jindal told reporters Friday.
In Terrebonne Parish, one of the parishes that issued an emergency declaration, officials set up spots where people could go to fill sandbags to try to mitigate flooding from the storm, local weather stations reported.
Meteorologist Mark Mancuso can see how New Orleans, with its levee system in question, could be hit with over a foot of rain, a challenge within itself.
"It's not just the rainfall, but perhaps days of pressure on levees, as storm surge water could be driven into Lake Pontchartrain if a tropical storm or hurricane hangs out or crawls over the north-central Gulf of Mexico," Mancuso said.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour also declared a state of emergency for parts of southern Mississippi expected to be affected by the storm.
Lee is likely to fully reach land in the next 48 hours, forecasters said.
The storm is over water as warm as 90 degrees, Morris said, and atmospheric conditions that were limiting its development are now making it more favorable to strengthen over the next 24 hours.
Tropical storm-force winds were reported at several oil rigs in the Gulf, according to the Miami-based National Hurricane Center.
The current track suggests a possible landfall west of Morgan City, La. on Sunday morning, said Morris.
The storm was barely moving Friday evening, inching northward at 3 mph. About 7 p.m. CST, it was 180 miles west-southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River and had winds of 45 mph, the Hurricane Center reported. Heavy rain was spreading across southeastern and south-central Louisiana, according to the National Weather Service.
Tropical storm warnings were up for the Gulf Coast from Pascagoula, Miss. to Sabine Pass, Texas.
Parts of southern Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama could see 10 to 15 inches of rain by Sunday, with isolated totals of 20 inches, according to the hurricane center.
The consensus among nearly 100 meteorologists at AccuWeather is that this will be an extensive, slow-moving system, capable of affecting the same areas for days with downpours, stormy seas, and rough surf conditions. Rough seas alone have potential to shut down some rigs in the Gulf for an extended period.
As much as 20 inches of rain may fall on part of the central Gulf Coast beginning late this week and continuing into next week, and could in itself result in disastrous flooding.
Considering potential for damage, impact to the petroleum industry and commerce in the Gulf Coast region, the system could be the next billion-dollar disaster in a prolific year of costly storms for the United States. The FEMA budget is already in trouble with reports of slow-moving recovery funds.
Parts of the East Coast have potential to get rain from the system's remnants next week.
In other parts of the nation, showers and thunderstorms will be locally severe during Saturday in the swath from southern Ontario to the Oklahoma panhandle.
An upper level disturbance moving along a sagging cool front triggered thunderstorms with damaging winds in parts of Wisconsin and Michigan Friday morning. Gusts up to 80 mph hit some communities in Wisconsin, taking down trees and power lines.
As senior meteorologist Kristina Pydynowski warned of earlier this week, this has the potential to be a multiple-day severe weather threat in the region.
A similar feature can lead to thunderstorms with similar wind issues farther south and east along the front during Saturday. The risk of thunderstorms with damaging wind gusts Saturday includes the swath from Dodge City to Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, and London, Ont.
Additionally, the risk of locally severe thunderstorms may extend into the Ohio Valley and part of the Northeast by Sunday.
Along with the risk of damaging wind gusts comes the possibility of nasty downpours and flash and urban flooding.
The same front may also set the stage for a drenching rain event in part of the Atlantic Seaboard late in the Labor Day weekend as tropical moisture from Lee attempts to spread northward along the front. There is the risk of heavy rainfall in part of the same areas that were flooded by Irene.
Meanwhile, for firefighters trying to stop the wildfires outside of Dallas this weekend, the front coming down from the north will bring no relief.
"If they're going to get a handle on [the fire], they better get a handle on it before Sunday," AccuWeather expert senior meteorologist Alex Sosnowski said.
"There is a cool front coming down this weekend, but it has little or no rain with it."
Even worse, Sosnowski said that the north might have gusts of wind coming ahead of and behind it. Gusts of wind and continually dry air could push the fire and fan the flames.
Sunday into Sunday night, the Dallas-Fort Worth area is forecast to get northerly wind gusts up to 45 miles per hour.
Keep track of all incoming severe weather, tropical storms and hurricanes at http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/