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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Office inmate workers move free sandbags for residents in Chalmette, La., on Thursday as the area braces for Tropical Storm Barry.

Friday, July 12, 2019 1:00 am

Gulf coast bracing for tropical storm

Crews preparing for heavy rains to slam Louisiana

KEVIN McGILL and REBECCA SANTANA | Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS – Thousands of Louisianans broke out sandbags or fled to higher ground Thursday as Tropical Storm Barry threatened to turn into the first hurricane of the season and blow ashore with torrential rains that could pose a severe test of New Orleans' improved post-Katrina flood defenses.

National Guard troops and rescue crews in high-water vehicles took up positions around the state as Louisiana braced for the arrival of the storm Friday night or early Saturday.

Barry could have winds of about 75 mph, just barely over the 74 mph threshold for a hurricane, when it comes ashore, making it a Category 1 storm, forecasters said.

But it is expected to bring more than a foot and a half  of rain in potentially ruinous downpours that could go on for hours as the storm passes through the metropolitan area of nearly 1.3 million people and pushes slowly inland.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who declared an emergency earlier as the storm brewed in the Gulf of Mexico, warned that the storm's blow could form a dangerous combination with the already-high Mississippi River, which has been swelled by heavy rain and snowmelt upriver this spring.

“There are three ways that Louisiana can flood: storm surge, high rivers and rain,” Edwards said. “We're going to have all three.”

He said authorities do not expect the Mississippi River to spill over its levees – something that has never happened in New Orleans' modern history – but cautioned that a change in the storm's direction or intensity could alter that.

As of Thursday evening, Barry was about 90 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi, with winds around 45 mph. A hurricane warning was posted for a 100-mile stretch of Louisiana coastline just below Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Southeast of New Orleans, authorities handed out sandbags and people piled into cars with their pets and began clearing out. Plaquemines Parish, at Louisiana's low-lying southeastern tip, ordered the mandatory evacuation of as many as 10,000 people, and by midafternoon the area was largely empty.

Justice of the Peace David McGaha waited with his mother, his wife and their 15-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter for a ferry so they could evacuate to his mother's house in Alabama.

“If the river wasn't so high, we'd probably stay. You have to worry about the water that'll be pushing against those levees,” he said. “They made a lot of improvements to the levee, but they haven't completed all the projects.”

Clarence Brocks, 65, a Plaquemines Parish native and volunteer fire chief who lost his home to Hurricane Katrina and had to start over from scratch, found himself packing up again.

“We're in between two major bodies of water and the only thing protecting us is two, 18-foot levees, and one of them failed already for Katrina,” he said.

The National Hurricane Center said as much as 20 inchesof rain could fall in parts of eastern Louisiana, including Baton Rouge, and the entire region could get as much as 10 inches. The New Orleans area could get 10 to 15 inches through Sunday, forecasters said.

Meteorologist Benjamin Schott said the chief concern is not the wind: “Rainfall and flooding is going to be the No. 1 threat with this storm.”