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 pose a test for 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 girded for the arrival of the storm late today 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 produce 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 in the week 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 night, Barry was about 85 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi River, with winds around 50 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."
The National Hurricane Center said as much as 20 inches of 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 10-15 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."
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said the pumping system that drains the city's streets is working as designed but Barry could dump water faster than the pumps can move it.
However, the city did not plan to order evacuations because Barry was so close and because it was not expected to grow into a major hurricane.
The National Weather Service said it expects the Mississippi River to rise to 19 feet by Saturday morning at a key gauge in the New Orleans area, which is protected by levees 20-25 feet high.
Information for this article was contributed by Chevel Johnson, Janet McConnaughey and Sarah Blake Morgan of The Associated Press.
St. Bernard Parish, La., prisoners load free sandbags for people Thursday in Chalmette as Tropical Storm Barry heads toward south Louisiana threatening to become the first hurricane of the season. Officials braced for torrential rainfall that poses a test for New Orleans’ post-Katrina flood defenses. The storm is expected to make landfall as early as this evening.
A Section on 07/12/2019
Print Headline: Louisianans sandbag, flee as Barry churns for shore