NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Barry touched down on the Louisiana coast Saturday, weakening to a tropical storm with the potential to linger over this low-lying state and soak it with as much as 15 to 20 inches of rain.
“We are not, in any way, out of the woods,” New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell (D) said at a news conference Saturday afternoon.
By the time the storm hit, many along the coast had either evacuated or sheltered in place. Now, thousands are bracing for days of flooding.
“The Mississippi is [the river] that’s levee’d and doesn’t pose a threat,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said at a news conference. “Every other river poses a threat to flooding.”
Barry became the first hurricane of the 2019 Atlantic season. Seven hurricanes have made landfall in the Lower 48 and Puerto Rico since 2017, causing billions of dollars in damage.
Carrying vast amounts of Gulf of Mexico moisture inland, the storm could dump more than 15 inches of rain in parts of eastern Louisiana and southwestern Mississippi. The system could take the better part of the weekend to plow through Louisiana, from south to north, unloading wave after wave of flooding rain in some areas.
More than 130,000 customers had lost power in Louisiana as of late Saturday afternoon, but that number dropped to 115,000 in the evening, according to PowerOutage.us.
By the time Barry leaves, the Comite River is expected to crest higher than it did during the destructive floods of 2016; the Amite could also be well above flood stage.
Closer to the coast, in Morgan City on the Atchafalaya River, the rain and wind were already downing trees and power lines Saturday, leaving more than 6,000 in the dark, according to David Naquin of the St. Mary Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. One couple had to be rescued from their trailer, he said, after live wires fell onto it so they dared not touch the metal door handles.
In Baton Rouge, 60 miles inland, the “Cajun Navy” gathered, poised to perform flood rescues. So far, their services have not been needed. They are waiting — a painful process for a group of civilian volunteers with an instinct for action.
Some tongued plugs of tobacco and munched on day-old Domino’s Pizza. Others had charged debates over the U.S. border policy and strategy in Afghanistan.
“Emotions are heightened and the adrenaline is rushing,” said Sky Barkley, 33, as sideways rain blew outside the L’Auberge Casino, where they are staged. “If you do this work, there are times you are just sitting around.”
Some are native Louisianans, and others are from Texas, North Carolina and elsewhere. Barkley, the director of operations for Stronghold, a relief organization for victims of genocide and human trafficking, came from Toccoa, Ga.
A group gathered at an overlook of the Mississippi River watching white caps roll over its surface — a telltale sign of a storm surge and the flooding to come, Barkley said.
While the Mississippi showed no sign of overtopping levees in New Orleans, cresting two feet lower than anticipated, another crest is expected Monday — and heavy rains will continue to threaten the entire delta and inland areas for days to come.
All flights into and out of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport were canceled Saturday.
With Uber and Lyft halting service on Saturday, taxi driver Harold Nolan was able to cash in, pocketing hundreds of dollars in just a few hours. Nolan, who has been driving a taxi for 30 years, said many tourists saw the calm weather and dashed to the airport to try to catch flights, without realizing they had been canceled.
“People had reservations to leave, and the airlines didn’t inform them well enough to know that their flights had been canceled until they got to the airport,” said Nolan, 70. “And then they got there, and it was chaos because there wasn’t enough taxis to service the people trying to get out here.”
Nolan said he’s relieved the city seems to have escaped the worst effects of the storm. He said he and other longtime New Orleans residents could sense days ago that weather forecasters were needlessly “hyping” the storm.
“I think a lot of the media overplayed this,” Nolan said. “I just can’t see that they didn’t see that this storm was going to bypass most of New Orleans, even if it is wreaking havoc on other parts of Louisiana right now.”
Cantrell, the New Orleans mayor, warned residents that Mobile, Ala., had rainfall rates as high as four inches per hour Saturday morning and that downpours could pivot to New Orleans.
Authorities have pre-positioned boats and high-water vehicles across the city, Cantrell said. The Louisiana National Guard also has about 3,800 guardsmen and airmen stationed across the state to handle emergencies.
Cantrell asked residents to remain sheltered in their homes throughout the weekend, declining to put in place a curfew, which she said would require additional resources.
Crews are closely monitoring 72,000 storm drains across the city, and officials with the Sewerage and Water Board, which maintains the pumps that help push water out of New Orleans, said the machinery has been working well.
“There are no threats to the levee system,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Sears, deputy commander of the Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District.
New Orleans officials continue to express 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. For the first time in the history of the new system, every floodgate has been closed.
In areas downriver from New Orleans, closer to the Louisiana coast, rescue operations were underway. The U.S. Coast Guard deployed a helicopter and a safety boat Saturday to help 11 people who reported being caught in their flooded homes on the Isle de Jean Charles, about 45 miles south of New Orleans, according to Petty Officer Lexie Preston. The flooding reached “roof level” in parts of the area, Preston said.
In Terrebonne Parish on Saturday, officials implemented a mandatory evacuation order for people south of Falgout Canal, where water was overtopping a levee. Louisiana officials said 315 people had slept at 28 shelters across the state on Friday night.
In Plaquemines Parish, officials were urgently evaluating a breach in a secondary levee Saturday.
Council member Richie Blink said persistent southerly wind caused water from the Gulf of Mexico to “overtop the levee in several areas as long as 1,000 yards.”
Local firefighters said 80 houses have been affected by the flooding, but they are elevated. Floodwater is threatening to submerge Highway 23, the only north-south highway through the parish, and officials are worried some residents who didn’t evacuate could become stranded.
“The water is just going over top of the levee and going into fields that already have two feet of water in them,” Blink said
Plaquemines Sheriff Gerald A. Turlich Jr. said officials were surprised by the extent of the flooding, which he said was caused by the storm’s slow movement.
“It hasn’t moved very fast and we are really getting the brunt of the wind,” Turlich said. “They say this wind should last all the way into Monday.”
Blink hopped onto an fanboat to survey the problem.
He said low-lying Plaquemines has been trying to upgrade its levee systems for years, and $700 million in federal funds have been allocated for the projects. But, Blink said, much of the funding hasn’t been released yet.
“It’s a slow going process, and we need to be able to adapt as fast as the climate,” Blink said.
What’s happening to Plaquemines, Blink predicted, is a harbinger of what coastal communities throughout the nation will be facing as sea levels rise.
“Places all around the country are going to be dealing with this,” Blink said, as the fanboat, which was named Katrina, sped off. “And the day before a storm is not the day to plan.”
Sellers and Iati reported from Washington. Ashley Cusick and Jacqueline Kantor in New Orleans, Nick Miroff in McAllen, Tex., and Morgan Krakow and Jason Samenow in Washington contributed to this report.