By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The New Orleans region braced for Tropical Storm Lee on Saturday, with the morning marked by some evacuation orders, flooding and tornado warnings, although there were no early reports of casualties or major damage.
Slow-moving Tropical Storm Lee had strengthened as it lumbered toward the Louisiana coast, bringing torrential rains that will put the flood defenses of low-lying New Orleans to the test.
As heavy rains crossed Lake Pontchartrain near the city, the 24-mile causeway across the lake was closed for a time in the morning before the band of precipitation passed further to the north.
Tornado warnings were issued around the area in the early hours of Saturday, and a tornado watch had remained in effect in the metropolitan area until mid-morning.
Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish, reported "a lot of flooding on Highway 23," with one lane completely underwater near the Empire Bridge.
Nungesser said the road could become impassable, and complained that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had delayed an upgrade of a local levee that so far was holding up but had seen overtopping from the storm surge.
The prospect of flooding in low-lying New Orleans evoked memories of Hurricane Katrina, which flooded 80 percent of the city, killed 1,500 people and caused more than $80 billion in damage in 2005. Half of the city lies below sea level and is protected by a system of levees and flood gates.
However, although some streets were flooded, drainage pumps were reported to be working and there were no early reports of water in homes or businesses in the city.
"Everything looks pretty good right now," said Ken Holder, spokesman for the Corps of Engineers, which manages the city's flood defenses.
Periodic breaks in the rainfall allowed the city's giant pumps to catch up with the water flow and clear standing water, said Jefferson Parish President John Young.
"The pumps are keeping up with the water. We are getting some street flooding," Young told local television.
Jefferson Parish, covering much of the city's suburbs, had ordered a mandatory evacuation for three towns, Parish Council member Chris Roberts said.
He reported the evacuation was for Lafitte, Crown Point and Barataria.
Heavy rains and tidal surge pushed Bayou Barataria over its banks in the area near New Orleans, and Roberts said if residents in low-lying spots didn't leave now, it could be a couple of days before they were able to get out.
Bands of heavy rain had moved through the New Orleans area overnight and through the early morning hours, bringing rain totals above 10 inches in some parts of the city.
A few reports of water entering homes had come in lower Terrebonne Parish, according to parish Emergency Management Director Earl Eues.
Some streets were flooded in Houma and Dulac, and he said a voluntary evacuation advisory was in effect for low-lying areas of the parish, nearest the coast. About 60 people had gone to a shelter the parish opened.
Intermittent power outages have occurred in some neighborhoods.
The storm is expected to reach the Louisiana coast later on Saturday and bring 10-15 inches of rain to southeast Louisiana over the next few days, including to New Orleans, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Plaquemines Parish president Nungesser was concerned about what would happen if heavy rains continue for another day or two.
However, some forecasters were saying they're encouraged the storm is moving faster and could clear out of the area a little more quickly than initially expected.
The storm's track could shift slightly. One meteorologist has raised the possibility the storm could do a northwesterly loop after coming ashore, thereby taking rain to southwest Louisiana and even Texas, and then circling back south and east toward New Orleans.
(Writing by Jerry Norton; Editing by Colleen Jenkins)