Nervous New Orleans residents are preparing to flee as Tropical Storm Barry closes in, with forecasts of “extreme rain” and more flooding ahead of the storm’s predicted landfall early on Saturday as the first Atlantic hurricane of 2019.
Barry coalesced in the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday morning, packing maximum sustained winds of 64 km/h, a day after the gathering storm drenched New Orleans with nearly a 30 cm of rain, the National Weather Service said.
A tropical storm warning was posted for metropolitan New Orleans, and a hurricane warning was in effect for a long stretch of the Louisiana coast south of the city.
By Thursday, the storm had already taken a toll on oil and gas operations along the Gulf, with energy companies shutting down production on more than half of the region’s petroleum output and evacuating personnel from nearly 200 offshore facilities and a coastal refinery.
With the brunt of the storm expected to skirt the western edge of New Orleans instead of making a direct hit, city officials refrained from ordering evacuations, urging residents to secure their property, gather supplies and shelter in place instead.
But some residents, recalling the devastation wreaked in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, which killed some 1,800 people along the Gulf Coast, were determined to get out of harm’s way. The threat of flooding along the Mississippi River, which winds through the heart of the city, was a big concern.
Throughout the city, motorists left cars parked on the raised median strips of roadways in hopes of giving their vehicles just enough extra elevation to keep them from being damaged by street flooding.
Barry was forecast to bring a coastal storm surge into the mouth of the river, pushing its height to 5.9 metres on Saturday, the highest on record since 1950 and dangerously close to the top of the levee system protecting the city.
The Mississippi has been running above flood stage for six months. Torrential downpours from the storm would only add to the flow, raising the chance of overtopping levee walls, especially downstream of the city where the barrier is lower.
Meteorologists predicted between 25 cm and 50 cm of rain would fall on the Gulf Coast on Friday and Saturday from East Texas through New Orleans and the Louisiana coast.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell warned that 48 hours of heavy rainfall could overwhelm pumps that the low-lying city uses to purge its streets and storm drains of excess water, leading to flooding as early as Friday morning.
“We cannot pump our way out of the water levels that are expected to hit the city of New Orleans,” Ms Cantrell said. “We need you to understand this.”
It’s expected the storm will measure a category one, the lowest rung on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane wind strength, when it comes ashore. Barry will be classified a hurricane once it reaches wind speeds of 119 km.