NEW ORLEANS — Barry, a storm that briefly became the first hurricane of the season, delivered torrential rain to Louisiana and Mississippi on Sunday as it migrated at a lazy pace northward toward Arkansas. This has been a big, soggy tropical storm, but it underperformed most forecasts. New Orleans, Baton Rouge and other waterlogged communities seem to have dodged the kind of full-blown natural disaster that seemed possible just a few days earlier.
Government officials continued to urge residents to be cautious. Rainfall can be a stealth killer in these extreme weather events as rivers rise and flash floods become potentially lethal. The National Weather Service on Sunday warned of “dangerous, life-threatening flooding” across Louisiana and Mississippi and points north.
“The slow movement of this weather system means that it is far from over for our state,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) warned early Sunday.
“We still have life-threatening conditions as the storm moves north into northern Louisiana, Mississippi and western Tennessee,” said Pete Gaynor, the acting administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
On Sunday afternoon, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell (D) issued the all-clear for the city, which regained some sense of normalcy even as the skies periodically opened and unleashed another batch of heavy rain.
“We absolutely made it through the storm. Beyond lucky, we were spared,” Cantrell said in a public briefing about the tropical storm. “As those [rain] bands moved closer to New Orleans, it just seemed to go around us.”
Barry made landfall Saturday afternoon at Intracoastal City, La., meriting hurricane status for only a few hours before it weakened as it rolled north. By midday Sunday, the center of the circulation was near the Louisiana-Texas line, but it was a lopsided storm, with rain bands extending far to the east, well into Mississippi. Later Sunday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center downgraded Barry to a tropical depression.
In a news briefing late Sunday, Edwards again urged people not to let their guard down but said he was “extremely grateful” that the storm didn’t deliver as much rain and flooding as had been forecast.
“This is a storm that could have played out differently,” he said.
He said there were no fatalities definitely linked to the storm. Louisiana residents experienced 188,000 power outages, he said. National Guardsmen evacuated 48 medically fragile patients from a darkened medical center in New Iberia, and another 45 people had to be rescued for various reasons in other parts of the state, he said. He closed the briefing by reminding people that hurricane season has barely begun.
Here in New Orleans, officials were pleased by the performance of their network of 120 pumps, which had been overwhelmed by an extreme downpour Wednesday that flooded parts of the city and caught residents by surprise. But city officials also sounded a cautionary note. They want to improve their ability to prepare for and respond to the kind of violent storms that in recent years have intensified rapidly over the abnormally hot waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Cantrell, who became mayor in 2018, said the community needs to have robust discussions about how to protect residents as sea levels rise and tropical storms bring heavier downpours.
When Hurricane Katrina struck the city in 2005 and the levees failed, 80 percent of New Orleans flooded, a catastrophe that took the lives of close to 1,500 people and prompted government officials to develop a new playbook for evacuating people in advance of a major hurricane. That plan involves marshaling civilian and military aircraft, as well as 750 buses and Amtrak.
But Cantrell said a major review of the city’s hurricane plans is now needed. She said it takes about 60 hours to implement such an evacuation, and several recent hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico have intensified so explosively that the 60-hour time frame may no longer be practical. The mayor said there are currently at least 30,000 New Orleans residents who have indicated that they would need help evacuating.
Cantrell said authorities will also review how to handle storms that do not reach major hurricane status but can still drop massive amounts of rain.
“The weather patterns and the rains are coming down harder, faster, more intense, bigger rain drops,” said Kristin Gisleson Palmer, a New Orleans City Council member whose district spans both sides of the Mississippi River. The federal government needs to rethink how it supports local communities in severe weather events that fall short of becoming major hurricanes, she said.
“If we are having hundred-year rain storms every year, then something is changing,” Gisleson Palmer said.
Several converging factors made Barry an unusually dangerous tempest given its relatively modest wind speeds. The Mississippi River has been unusually high for months due to heavy rains in the center of the country. The storm surge from Barry and the associated rainfall could have forced the Mississippi perilously close to the top of the levees that protect New Orleans.
But the storm migrated farther west than expected before it made landfall. The storm surge along the coast was feebler than feared in many places, and the Mississippi River stayed well below the tops of the levees.
By Sunday, cars were back on the streets and restaurants — which had been operating with skeletal staffs — resumed normal service. Airlines that had canceled flights in and out of the city began resuming regular operations Sunday morning.
In Houma, a city southwest of New Orleans, Barry’s impact seemed minimal as citizens resumed their routines Sunday. Under a still-drizzling sky, residents picked up branches scattered in their yards, confident that the worst was over.
“I think everyone made a really big deal out of it, and it turned out to be nothing,” said Christie Peters as she loaded her SUV with groceries outside Cannata’s Family Market, where residents had been frantically shoveling sand into bags under darkening skies on Saturday.
In Mandeville, La., flooding wasn’t severe. Resident Bruce Marcev worried that the heavy hype surrounding Barry’s arrival could prove dangerous later in the season.
“This is going to happen for every storm because of Katrina,” he said. “This isn’t going to be good for the next storm. . . . People will say, ‘Well, nothing happened with Barry.’ ”
In low-lying Plaquemines Parish, a strip of land that includes the mouth of the Mississippi River, the last evacuees left the shelter at noon — three days after they had arrived. At the height of the storm on Saturday morning, 106 people had been living on cots in the Belle Chasse High School auditorium.
The last three evacuees were Melvin Sino, 75, his wife Alice Sino, 69, and their daughter Angela Wilson, 48. Melvin and Alice have special needs, and had to be loaded into a medical transport van for the trip home.
“At least now they get to go back to where they’re familiar with and they don’t have any more anxiety,” Wilson said as she hopped into the van.
Wilson said her parents’ house sits just a few feet off the ground in a potential flood zone.
“I think they should [move], but them being older people, they are set in their ways, and I don’t think they will unless something actually forces them to move,” Wilson said. “I don’t want to keep evacuating like this.”
Keith Espadron Jr., the director of the parish office of economic development who helped coordinate the shelter, said he is well aware that this won’t be the last time residents are asked to move to higher ground.
“It’s just the nature of where we live, and we always know that and we are always prepared for that,” said Espadron.
On the Lafourche Parish side of Des Allemands, a town about 40 minutes southwest of New Orleans, Mark Fonseca’s property sits directly on the Bayou Des Allemands. He had stacked sandbags on top of a small levee wall he built with rocks, clay and dirt last year. Fonseca, a blue crab, catfish and alligator fisherman, has lived in this house his entire life.
“The water table is a lot higher than when I was younger,” he said. “We’re supposed to be losing coast land every year, and the water comes up quicker now than it used to.”
Cusick reported from Cocodrie and Berman reported from Washington. Jason Samenow in Washington and Alex Horton in Baton Rouge contributed to this report.