Here’s what you need to know:
The storm is gathering strength in the warm water of the Gulf.
Louisiana residents are filling sandbags and stocking up on food and gas as they prepare their homes for Tropical Storm Barry, which is expected to strengthen into a hurricane and cause widespread flooding along the coast on Saturday.
The storm’s winds have hit 65 miles per hour, still shy of a Category 1 hurricane, but officials on the ground are most worried about dangerous surges of water and torrential downpours. Portions of the Louisiana and Mississippi coast may get up to 20 inches of rain, and there is a high chance of flash flooding in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, officials said.
☔️First few outer rain bands of Barry have begun to move through our area. Expect brief but heavy rain with some gusty winds throughout the day. More bands are expected to develop this afternoon. #mobwx pic.twitter.com/9yDQWzxS87
— NWS Mobile (@NWSMobile) July 12, 2019
A hurricane warning has been issued for a wide swath of the Louisiana coast, stretching from south of Lafayette to the coast south of New Orleans. As of 11 a.m., the hurricane was about 115 miles away from Morgan City, a small city near the coast that is in the storm’s path.
“The more information we get, the more concerned we are it’s going to be an extreme rain event for a large portion of the state,” Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana said on Thursday.
Barry will test New Orleans’s storm protections.
This storm could be among the biggest tests to the city’s complex pump-and-levee protection system since Hurricane Katrina.
The flood-prone city, dipping largely below sea level, relies on dozens of massive drainage pumps to flush water out of its streets and miles of federal levees to block storm surge from the Mississippi River to the south and Lake Pontchartrain to the north. But the aging pumps have proved vulnerable to break downs and power losses in recent years, while spring flooding has pushed the river higher over the last several months to nearly the top of the levees.
Forecasters expect Barry, the year’s first major tropical stirring, to bring between 10 and 20 inches of rain to the New Orleans metropolitan area and several feet of surge in the surrounding waterways. Barry’s trajectory, just to the west of New Orleans, will most likely leave the city on the storm’s eastern flank, where rains tend to fall heaviest during tropical weather events.
While the trauma of the levee failures from Katrina remains thick, New Orleans government officials are eying the rain as the greatest threat to safety and focusing on the performance of the drainage pumps.
Ghassan Korban, the executive director for New Orleans’s Sewerage & Water Board, which runs the pumps, cautioned on Thursday that the city “could have a repeat” of widespread flooding seen in the city on Wednesday, when a strong storm dumped up to nine inches of rain in some neighborhoods.
“We have antiquated and old equipment that, again, stand to serve the city,” Mr. Korban said. “They are fragile.”
Morgan City, surrounded by water, is right in the storm’s path.
Morgan City’s motto is “Right in the Middle of Everywhere.” On Saturday morning, the Louisiana city of 12,000 people may find itself right in the middle of a hurricane.
Forecasters expect Barry to land right on the city, which has had many close calls in recent years but not a direct hit. Residents and business owners are already filling sandbags, gassing up generators and gathering food and water supplies.
“We’ve been dodging the bullet for the last 10 years,” Mayor Frank Grizzaffi said in an interview Thursday. “Every time a hurricane comes up, it’s somewhere near Morgan City. This time, I think we’re finally going to get it.”
People in the New Orleans area hunkering down, but making a Plan B, too.
Just before 10 a.m., a steady stream of cars and trucks pulled into a Costco gas station near the Hollygrove neighborhood of New Orleans, between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.
The Rev. Elvin Bazile, 82, filled his pickup truck and also a red gas can in the truckbed to power a generator for his home in neighboring Jefferson Parish. He said he pumped enough gas to drive out of town in case of a last-minute evacuation order. The plan is to stay, he said, “unless it gets too bad.” His family has friends in Georgia are ready to take them in if needed, he said.
“My gut feeling is uncertainty,” Mr. Bazile said about how damaging Barry could be for the New Orleans area. His worry stemmed from both the strength of the storm, he said, as well as the ability of the infrastructure to protect the metro area.
On Lakeshore Drive, the curving roadway that edges Lake Pontchartrain, white-capped waves crashed completely over a large concrete embankment, usually a dry area used for jogging and impromptu picnic lunches.
Waves crashed on the bare feet of Joseph Thomas, 51, and his 2-year-old son, Joseph III, on his hip. Mr. Thomas said he planned to ride out the storm at his home in Harvey, a city in Jefferson Parish, unless “it gets ridiculous.”
His main concern, he said, is whether the levees hold up.
“We would not be talking about Katrina had the levees not broke,” he said, explaining that it was the failure of the flood protection structure, not the strength of the storm, that wreaked havoc 14 summers ago.
The family had already stocked up with canned ravioli, Gatorade, and “water for days,” Mr. Thomas said. They, too, had a backup plan: In case of an evacuation order or a lengthy loss of power, they will head to Mr. Thomas’s father’s home north of Hattiesburg, Miss.
Until then, he wanted to give his son a firsthand look at the brewing storm, even though it was about 15 minutes out of his way. It has become a tradition in his family to watch the waves crash during extreme weather, when it’s safe: “I love it,” he said.
“It’s cold,” was the 2-year-old’s only commentary, Thomas said.
Here’s how the pumping system works.
Mr. Korban of the Sewerage & Water Board said that 118 of the New Orleans’s total 120 pumps should be working. The pumps draw water from miles of underground pipes and curbside storm drains, and deposit it into canals that flow into Lake Pontchartrain.
Officials frequently stress ahead of storms that heavy rain can overwhelm the capacity of the city’s drainage system, regardless of how well the old pumps perform.
The pumps also depend partially on power generated by the city’s local power provider, Entergy New Orleans, which often goes down during strong storms because of lightning outages or damaged power lines.
“Again, we cannot pump our way out of the water levels and the water falls that are expected to hit the city of New Orleans,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans said on Thursday. “We need you to understand this, and again be prepared to shelter in place.”
The Sewerage & Water Board’s pumps suffered major setbacks in the summer of 2017, when a slow-moving deluge flooded much of the city and revealed that more than a dozen drainage pumps and several key power turbines were knocked offline.
Officials then spent around $85 million to repair those pumps and turbines, and have routinely stressed that the water utility’s shaky drainage equipment is in better shape than it has been for decades.
Aside from rain, officials with the United States Army Corps of Engineers are closely watching how high Barry’s storm surge pushes up the Mississippi River along New Orleans. As of Friday morning, the river level stood at just above 16 feet, close to the low point of 20 feet for some stretches of the New Orleans-area federal levees built and maintained by the Army Corps.
Ricky Boyett, a Corps spokesman, said on Friday that the river so far is not projected to rise higher than 19 feet, and that officials do not anticipate any overtopping.
“We do have a lot of confidence,” Mr. Boyett said. “The Mississippi River levees are very robust. They’re designed to handle this type of water and pressure.”
Beau Evans and Emily Lane reported from New Orleans, and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Adeel Hassan from New York.