By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Almost exactly six years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans and produced one of the worst disasters in the nation's history, residents are again bracing for a storm lumbering north in the Gulf of Mexico.
Tropical Storm Lee may not reach hurricane status before it comes ashore, probably on Saturday, on an expected path just west of New Orleans. But forecasters say the system could pack a wallop of between 10 inches and 20 inches of rain.
"Get ready for the wind, get ready for the rain. It's coming and it's going to be here for a while," Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal warned on Friday.
New Orleans residents did not pay much attention as the system took shape in the Gulf earlier in the week. But on Friday, after state and local officials issued emergency declarations and meteorologists said the slow-moving storm could produce heavy rains, stiff winds and a tidal surge, locals began stocking up on supplies and moving cars to higher ground.
The mayors of Grand Isle and Lafitte, in coastal areas south of New Orleans, called for voluntary evacuation of residents, and emergency teams stacked sandbags along waterways.
Nine offshore oil platforms were temporarily closed and evacuated, Jindal said.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu advised citizens to be on alert.
"You need to be prepared for whatever may come our way," he said. "We thought Katrina was just going to be rain and wind. We didn't predict it was going to be a flood."
The New Orleans Levee District has closed more than a dozen floodgates during the last 24 hours to protect against flooding from tidal surges. Floodgates were being closed in surrounding parishes as well.
Along with coastal areas that will be affected by rain and tides, the tidal surges could produce backwater flooding in tributaries throughout the area south of New Orleans and into Lake Pontchartrain at the city's northern edge.
In the city's tourism hub, the French Quarter, the streets bustled with good time-seekers as the annual Southern Decadence festival unfolded. The five-day event, which began Thursday, draws a mostly gay and lesbian crowd for a raucous weekend that attracts nearly 100,000 revelers.
Many hotels expected to be filled for the weekend, but the marketing manager at Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street said the weather is taking a toll. "We are experiencing a much higher than normal percentage of cancellations," Carly Plotkin said.
After the governor declared a state of emergency on Friday, bookings shrank by about 10 percent, she said.
Even so, festival-goers on Bourbon Street showed little sign of worry as they warmed up for their second night of revelry. John Kearns, operations manager at one of the festival's party hubs, Bourbon Pub & Parade, said "a little drizzle" wouldn't scare the revelers away.
"These guys like taking their shirts off anyway," he said.
While people throughout the area braced for heavy rain, the forecast does have an upside: A persistent marsh fire has been burning some 1,500 acres in eastern New Orleans wetlands for several days, blanketing the city with foul-smelling smoke and producing air quality and breathing problems for some residents.
Firefighters said that because the marsh is actually burning beneath the surface, it is virtually impossible to put it out using normal firefighting methods.
Jindal said Friday that firefighters believe the combination of wind and rains to come will extinguish the fire.
The storm had sustained winds of about 40 miles per hour with forecasters estimating it will make landfall on Saturday evening with winds of about 65 miles per hour.
The storm's track remains uncertain, but various possible tracks identified by the National Hurricane Center show the storm coming onshore just west of New Orleans and then curving in a northeasterly direction around the city. By Friday evening, some local forecasters were raising the possibility that the storm will follow a more easterly track, possibly putting New Orleans on the drier side of the system.
New Orleans was experiencing intermittent showers on Friday afternoon and tornado warnings were in effect for some areas just south of the city.
Hurricane Katrina swamped the floodwalls of New Orleans on August 29, 2005, putting much of the city under 15 feet of water and killing some 1,500 residents, many of whom were trapped in attics or on rooftops. The deaths were despite nearly a million people had fled to safety days earlier.
New Orleans had barely begun a massive cleanup when it was sideswiped by Hurricane Rita several weeks later. The city did not see another mass evacuation of residents until 2008, just ahead of Hurricane Gustav, though a last-minute turn by that storm spared New Orleans significant damage.
The city has still not fully recovered Katrina, with some of the people who evacuated never returning to rebuild, shrinking its population.
(Editing by Greg McCune)