NEW ORLEANS — As New Orleans prepared for expected landfall Saturday of a complex storm system — resulting in a rare and dangerous combination of drenching rains, near-hurricane-force winds and high water levels in the Mississippi River — some residents and tourists made last-minute decisions to escape the city while others heeded officials’ calls to shelter in place Friday.
Local officials expressed confidence in the $14 billion flood-mitigation system built to protect the city after Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people in 2005. The system of water pumps had quickly removed floodwaters after a deluge of rain hit the city Wednesday, said Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) during a news conference on Friday afternoon.
But Tropical Storm Barry — which is expected to make landfall on the central or western coast of the state Saturday morning, bringing “life-threatening storm surge” and as much as two feet of rain in some places, beginning overnight Friday — is presenting a unique test to the system. The Mississippi River has been in flood stage for an unprecedented 260 days.
For the first time in the history of the new flood-protection system, every floodgate has been closed. Edwards warned residents to be prepared for long-term power outages.
State and New Orleans officials decided not to order evacuations until late Friday, when voluntary evacuations were issued for a few communities outside of the levee system. Some residents, shaken by Wednesday’s downpour and memories of Hurricane Katrina, had mixed responses to officials’ optimism.
“All I want to know is should we leave,” wrote Tymara Cosey in an online response to Edwards’s news conference on Friday.
That question hung over the city Friday, as residents weighed the disruption and costs of leaving against the risk of staying in a city that seemed to many like a bathtub sunk into a swamp.
Some fled toward family in Houston, hotels in Jackson, Miss., and friends in Atlanta, many citing Wednesday’s unexpectedly high floods as a reason to go.
Bolanle Soyombo, who moved to New Orleans about a year ago from Houston, booked a ticket Thursday afternoon, and was on a flight to Indianapolis two hours later to stay with a friend. She was in Houston during Harvey, and that experience drove her decision to leave immediately.
“Harvey was a Category 1, but the amount of rain in such a short time was what was devastating. We physically couldn’t open the door to our house. . . . I’m not going to risk it,” she said.
Wanda Davis, 58, who was in town for a convention of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, waited in the Southwest Airlines line to check in for her flight.
“We’re not used to this,” she said. “We were told to fill up our bathtubs with water, and it’s like, no. We’re going home.”
New Orleans resident Matt Gibson has lived in the city for seven years and has never evacuated for a storm, until now. Like many others, he didn’t want to risk flooding his car after it narrowly escaped a dousing on Wednesday.
“Honestly, this was a purely financial decision,” he said. “To me, it’s just not worth the risk.”
At a midday news conference, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell (D) said, based on current weather forecasts, Tropical Storm Barry probably did not require a mandatory evacuation order. But even if it had, the city would not have had enough time to undertake a mandatory evacuation, she said.
Under a joint plan among city, state and federal agencies after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it takes about 60 hours to evacuate New Orleans. The plan requires the marshaling of military and civilian aircraft, 750 charter buses, Amtrak and the contraflow of major highways.
With the current storm system, Cantrell said the city “was behind hour 60 when we got wind of this track.”
Most government offices and major businesses were closed Friday. The Superdome’s Twitter account announced that a Rolling Stones concert Sunday had been postponed. Galleries shut their doors. Workers who did show up were stashing sandbags around doorways, electrical vents and street-front windows.
In St. Roch, a neighborhood northeast of the French Quarter, locals worked late into the night to fill sandbags to protect their homes.
Julie Whiteman, the president of the Faubourg St. Roch Improvement Association, said residents have lost faith in the city government.
“I think there is just a loss of trust in the city to take care of us,” said Whiteman, 35. “It just causes everyone to be on edge because it’s our lives, and not just some random thing — it’s water, and that means everybody’s lives can be in danger.”
Whiteman said local frustrations have been building since a thunderstorm overwhelmed the city’s pumping system in 2017, and the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board admitted that nearly one-tenth of the pumps had not been working properly.
Since then, city officials have stepped up efforts to modify the system. But Whiteman and scores of other city residents have decided to evacuate.
“I’m not scared of the storm. I am scared of the river,” said Whiteman, who was planning to leave for Jackson.
President Trump has declared a federal emergency for Louisiana. At his Friday news conference, Edwards urged caution, emphasizing the importance of preplanning and that the threat is statewide.
“Be where you want to be, and have what you need to have,” Edwards said. The rain “remains a very significant threat.”
Officials dispelled the notion that opening the giant spillways — the Morganza 300 miles upstream and the Bonnet Carre just outside the city — might have lowered river levels in time to avert the threats. They said those are prolonged operations that would have minimal benefits and might cause new problems.
Kevin McAleenan, acting secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, was involved in coordinating the Katrina response, and he said the threat “weighs heavily on me.”
“We see this storm as a threat,” he said.
DHS issued a statement saying that during the storm “there will be no immigration enforcement initiatives associated with evacuations or sheltering related to the storm, except in the event of a serious public safety threat.”
The National Hurricane Center issued hurricane warnings for the Louisiana coast from Intracoastal City to Grand Isle. A storm-surge warning went into effect for areas outside of the levee system in Orleans Parish, where a surge between three to six feet is possible.
Decisions to order evacuations are complex, experts say, based not only on technical information about the impact of an impending storm, but also on the need to coordinate with other communities that might be at risk.
Individuals also have to weigh their personal circumstances, such as whether they have elderly relatives or can’t manage in the event of a power outage, said Tricia Wachtendorf, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. It is important for officials to coordinate their messaging across many platforms, she said.
In the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, Glenda Stone, 61, said she is “tired of running” from possible hurricanes.
Stone said she keeps hearing conflicting information about the possible intensity of the rain and wind, and she is skeptical that city leaders and weather forecasters have enough information to make life-or-death decisions about evacuating.
So Stone, who was dislodged from her house for three years after Katrina, said she has decided to just stay and communicate with someone she does trust.
“I’m going to pray,” said Stone, pointing to the sky. “I just hope that man up there understands I’m sick of running, and I’m just tired.”
Though she remains optimistic that residents are not in serious danger, Cantrell said this storm shows that the amount of time it takes to evacuate residents remains a major flaw in the city’s preparedness. She cited Hurricane Michael, which quickly grew into a Category 5 Hurricane in October before slamming into the Florida Panhandle, as a sobering reminder of the danger residents here face from rapidly intensifying hurricanes.
“What we are seeing is the storms are coming faster, they are more intense, and more severe, and that’s a fact. And it’s not something that the city of New Orleans is only dealing with, it’s the United States of America,” Cantrell said.
Some changes are underway. According to long-standing guidelines, New Orleans usually will not issue a mandatory evacuation for a hurricane expected to be less than a Category 3. But Cantrell said the National Weather Service has been urging city and state leaders to also pay greater attention to specific impacts that even can occur in storms of less intensity. That was the case in Houston in 2017, when the city flooded from the remnants of Hurricane Harvey.
“Focusing primarily on the category can get us off track,” Cantrell said.
Still, local leaders here are on edge.
“Gameday is here,” said Col. Terry Ebbert, the city’s director of homeland security and public safety. “The only thing we are assured of is that something will change with the plan because we are dealing with the unknown.”
Even the issuance of sandbags has turned into a controversy. Some residents were angered that there was no city-sponsored distribution of sandbags, leaving it up to individual neighbor associations to give them out.
Cantrell defended that decision.
“What we have seen in past storms is the sands that end up in our drains, it works against us,” Cantrell said. “It works against the system that is in place to drain the city of New Orleans.”
Ashley Cusick in New Orleans, Jason Samenow in Washington and Nick Miroff in McAllen, Tex., contributed to this report.