Local officials mandated evacuations Thursday morning in low-lying areas surrounding New Orleans after a system in the Gulf of Mexico, which has since been upgraded to a tropical storm, dumped up to 8 inches of rain on the coastal city in just three hours the day before.
The National Hurricane Center predicted that the slow-moving Tropical Storm Barry could become a hurricane by Friday, warning that the biggest danger from the storm was not the wind but sustained heavy rain. It is expected to make landfall on Saturday morning.
“The slow movement of this system will result in a long duration heavy rainfall threat along the central Gulf Coast and inland through the lower Mississippi Valley through the weekend and potentially into next week,” the center said Wednesday.
The Mississippi River is also a factor in the mandatory evacuation order, due to the fact that it is already higher than usual.
The Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans said it is not worried about the structural integrity of the levee system surrounding the city. Instead, it has been monitoring water levels in case floodwaters spill over the levees.
“We’re confident the levees themselves are in good shape,” Army Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said. “The big focus is height.”
An Army Corps database showed sections of the levee below 20 feet high, which could pose a problem if water levels reach predicted heights above that level.
Though the agency originally backed the data as accurate, Boyett disputed the assertion that some portions were closer to 18 feet. He said that the lowest levees were 20 feet high, though by that time forecasters had already updated their flood predictions to 19 feet.
Overall, Boyett said that overtops on the levee are expected, though he reiterated the strength of the structures themselves.
“We’re confident with the integrity – the levees are extremely robust and designed to handle a lot of pressure,” he said.
In addition to the rain, forecasters expect that New Orleans will face strong winds as the storm develops toward hurricane status, with a storm surge that will cause waterways to rise and flood dry areas. The stormy could also bring tornadoes Thursday night and into Friday.
U.S. Senator John Kennedy, R-La., encouraged his constituents to be safe and not take risks during the storm.
“I guess my message to all of us is, and I say it to myself as well as my constituents: don’t be stupid, don’t take risks, make sure you’re ready,” he said in a video posted on Twitter Thursday morning.
Kennedy also listed necessary precautions such as making sure people in the storm’s path have nonperishable food, potable water and gas in their cars before the potential hurricane makes landfall.
Despite the severe weather, the senator was still prepared to make the trip back from Washington, D.C., to Louisiana.
“We’ll get through this. The people of Louisiana are tough as a pine knot,” he said. “We’ve been through this many, many times, but we can’t let our guard down.”