Heavy rains and gusty winds yesterday knocked out power on the US Gulf Coast as strengthening Tropical Storm Barry churned a path to shore, threatening millions and testing flood-prevention efforts implemented after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans 14 years ago.
Officials forecast that Barry would make landfall as this year’s first hurricane yesterday morning near Morgan City, west of New Orleans, where a curfew had been set until 6am and a long day started with on and off rain, power outages and people using cellphones to see in the dark and opening doors and windows to let the warm, sticky tropical air circulate.
As dawn approached, more than 45,000 people in southern Louisiana had lost power. The edges of the storm lashed Louisiana and coastal Mississippi and Alabama with rain, leaving some roads underwater overnight.
Although expected to be a weak hurricane — just barely over the 119kph wind speed threshold — it threatened disastrous flooding across a swath of the Gulf Coast.
The storm was expected to inflict the most damage on Louisiana and parts of Mississippi, with wind and rain affecting more than 3 million people.
Late on Friday night, residents received good news from forecasters: The Mississippi River was expected to crest in New Orleans at about 5.2m tomorrow, not 5.8m as had been earlier predicted. The levees protecting the city range from about 6m to 7.5m in height.
Forecasters warned that most of the storm’s rain remained over the Gulf of Mexico and would likely move into Louisiana and Mississippi later yesterday.
There were predictions of 25cm to 50cm of rain through today across a swath of Louisiana that includes New Orleans and Baton Rouge, with some parts of the state possible getting 63cm.
“It’s powerful. It’s strengthening. And water is going to be a big issue,” US National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said.
Governors declared emergencies in Louisiana and Mississippi, and authorities took the unprecedented precautions of closing floodgates and raising the barriers around New Orleans.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said that it was the first time all floodgates were sealed in the New Orleans area’s Hurricane Risk Reduction System since Katrina.
Still, he said that he did not expect the Mississippi River to spill over the levees, despite water levels already running high from spring rains and melting snow upstream.
Authorities told at least 10,000 people in exposed, low-lying areas along the Gulf Coast to leave, but no evacuations were ordered in New Orleans, where officials urged residents to “shelter in place.”
Before they did, people packed stores to stock up on bottled water, food and other essentials.
Workers shored up and raised the levee system in places with beams, sheet metal and other barriers.
Rescue crews and about 3,000 Louisiana National Guard troops were posted around the state with boats, high-water vehicles and helicopters.
After Katrina was blamed for more than 1,800 deaths by some estimates, the US Army Corps of Engineers began working on a multibillion-dollar hurricane protection system that is not complete. The work included repairs and improvements to about 560km of levees and more than 70 pumping stations.
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