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New Orleans has fingers crossed on levees

Officials: More rain could overwhelm city's weakened barriers

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Crews are working to shore up New Orleans' levees.

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Louisiana: 832
Mississippi: 219
Florida: 11
Alabama: 2
Georgia: 2

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NEW ORLEANS (CNN) -- Metropolitan New Orleans was included in a tropical storm warning Thursday, as the Army Corps of Engineers fretted over how much rain the city's fragile levees could take.

The National Hurricane Center said that Hurricane Rita, a Category 4 storm, could dump as much as 3 inches of rain on the New Orleans area -- an amount that could overwhelm the levee system, the Army Corps said.

"Right now, it's a wait and see and hope for the best," said Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Mitch Frazier. He added that the latest forecast brought renewed urgency to efforts to shore up levees with sandbags and bring in more portable pumps. (Hear scientists on what went wrong before with levees -- 2:28)

The city has a 50 percent to 60 percent chance of experiencing tropical storm-force winds -- above 39 mph -- and could get 3-foot to 5-foot storm surges, Mayor Ray Nagin said.

Damage to the levees during Hurricane Katrina left 80 percent of New Orleans under water. The storm also is blamed for more than 1,000 deaths, most of them in Louisiana.

Corps of Engineers officials had warned earlier this week that anything beyond normal tides threatened further damage to New Orleans' levees, but Nagin said there was little threat so far of a fresh deluge.

Mandatory evacuation orders remained in effect for neighborhoods on the east bank of the Mississippi River, and residents of west bank communities, such as Algiers, were urged to leave. Nagin said that most people have listened.

Forecasters expect Rita's landfall to occur early Saturday between Galveston, Texas, and the Louisiana state line. A hurricane warning is in effect from south of Houston, Texas, to Morgan City, Louisiana, about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans. (Full story)

Gov. Kathleen Blanco has urged residents in Louisiana's coastal parishes to evacuate northward immediately.

"The levees are in weakened conditions," Blanco said Thursday. "Everything is fragile in the Orleans impact area, and that includes St. Bernard and Plaquemines and some of the low-lying parishes.

"We're urging people in the Katrina impact areas to be very, very cautious."

Two breaches in New Orleans' levee system at the 17th Street Canal and London Ave. have been blocked off, said John Bradbury of Louisiana's Department of Transportation. (See what's being done to shore up the levees -- 1:45)

He said the current forecast calls for a 2-foot to 4-foot storm surge on Lake Pontchartrain," which "the current system of repairs could easily maintain ... and prevent flooding."

"We feel confident that a (storm) surge of 5 to 10 foot could possibly be handled [at] those breaks," Bradbury said.

In Plaquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, the scenario was less clear, Bradbury said.

Breaches are still under repair.

"We feel confident, somewhat confident, that anywhere from 3 to 4 feet would probably be able to be handled," Bradbury said. "Anything above that remains to be seen."

Jefferson Parish's Department of Emergency Management issued its own evacuation orders for two areas near Harvey Canal and Industrial Canal that are in major danger of flooding, according to emergency management director Walter Maestri.

Maestri is asking residents in Jean Lafitte, Crown Point and Barataria to leave beginning at 6 p.m. (7 p.m. ET) Thursday.

Although Jefferson Parish was not badly damaged by Katrina, local officials fear Rita could finish the job.

CNN's Carol Costello, Tracy Sabo and Adaora Udoji contributed to this report

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