Tropical Storm Lee

Martin Belden (left) of Mid Gulf Recovery Systems, erects a Tiger Dam along Bayou Barataria with other workers, in preparation for possible flooding from encroaching Tropical Storm Lee, in the town of Jean Lafitte, La., just outside New Orleans on Friday.

A large storm system churning in the Gulf Of Mexico grew Friday into Tropical Storm Lee, beginning a Labor Day weekend-long assault that could bring up to 20 inches of rain in some spots from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle.

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.

Residents who have survived killer hurricanes such as Betsy, Camille and Katrina didn’t expect Lee to live up to that legacy.

“It’s a lot of rain. It’s nothing, nothing 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 killed more than 40 people from North Carolina to Maine and knocked out power to millions.

 It was too soon to tell if Hurricane Katia, out in the Atlantic, could endanger the U.S.

By Friday evening, the outer bands of Lee, the 12th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, already began dumping rain over southeastern Louisiana, southern Mississippi and Alabama.

About 2 1/2 inches of rain fell Friday in some places on the Gulf Coast, including Boothville, La., and Pascagoula, Miss. In New Orleans, rainfall totals ranged from less than an inch to slightly over 2 inches.

The storm’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.