By Kathy Finn NEW ORLEANS, July 11 (Reuters) – Nervous New Orleans residents prepared to flee as Tropical Storm Barry closed in on Thursday, with forecasts of “extreme rain” and more flooding ahead of the storm’s predicted landfall early on Saturday as the first Atlantic hurricane of 2019.
Barry coalesced in the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday morning, packing maximum sustained winds of 40 miles per hour (64 kph), a day after the gathering storm drenched New Orleans with nearly a foot (30 cm) of rain, the National Weather Service said.
A tropical storm warning was posted late on Thursday afternoon for metropolitan New Orleans, and a hurricane warning was in effect for a long stretch of the Louisiana coast south of the city.
By Thursday, the storm had already taken a toll on oil and gas operations along the Gulf, with energy companies shutting down production on more than half of the region’s petroleum output and evacuating personnel from nearly 200 offshore facilities and a coastal refinery.
With the brunt of the storm expected to skirt the western edge of New Orleans instead of making a direct hit, city officials refrained from ordering evacuations, urging residents to secure their property, gather supplies and shelter in place instead.
But some residents, recalling the devastation wreaked in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, which killed some 1,800 people along the Gulf Coast, were determined to get out of harm’s way. The threat of flooding along the Mississippi River, which winds through the heart of the city, was a big concern.
“It’s really the river that has us worried,” said Betsey Hazard, who lives with her husband, Jack, and their two young children a block from the Mississippi River. “They say that the river won’t flood in New Orleans, but we have a 5-year-old and a 10-month-old, and we don’t want to take any chances.”
The Hazards said they would head soon for the neighboring state of Mississippi to ride out the storm there.
Others flocked to supermarkets for bottled water, ice, snack foods and beer, thronging grocery outlets in such numbers that some ran out of shopping carts.
Throughout the city, motorists left cars parked on the raised median strips of roadways in hopes of giving their vehicles just enough extra elevation to keep them from being damaged by street flooding.
Barry was forecast to bring a coastal storm surge into the mouth of the river, pushing its height to 19 feet (5.9 m) on Saturday, the highest on record since 1950 and dangerously close to the top of the levee system protecting the city.
The Mississippi has been running above flood stage for six months. Torrential downpours from the storm would only add to the flow, raising the chance of overtopping levee walls, especially downstream of the city where the barrier is lower.
Meteorologists predicted between 10 and 20 inches (25 and 50 cm) of rain would fall on the Gulf Coast on Friday and Saturday from East Texas through New Orleans and the Louisiana coast.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell warned that 48 hours of heavy rainfall could overwhelm pumps that the low-lying city uses to purge its streets and storm drains of excess water, leading to flooding as early as Friday morning.
“We cannot pump our way out of the water levels that are expected to hit the city of New Orleans,” Cantrell said. “We need you to understand this.”
Water pumps already were working at capacity after heavy rains that caused widespread street flooding on Wednesday, she said.
“The more information we get, the more concerned we are that this is going to be an extreme rain event,” Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said at an afternoon news conference. “If Tropical Storm Barry becomes a hurricane, it would be the first time we’ve had the hurricane hit the state with rising rivers.”
High winds were less of a concern than high water.
Edwards said he expected the storm to measure a Category 1, the lowest rung on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane wind strength, when it comes ashore. Barry will be classified a hurricane once it reaches wind speeds of 74 mph (119 km).
The storm was quick to dampen tourism.
In the normally bustling French Quarter, popular with visitors, only a couple of tables were occupied at the coffee-and-beignet restaurant Café du Monde.
Kate Clayson of Northampton, England, and her boyfriend, Maxx Lipman, of Nashville, Tennessee, said they arrived on Wednesday for a vacation but were planning to depart on Thursday.
“The woman at our Airbnb said the water came up to the first step of our house yesterday, so we’ve just decided we’d better get out,” Clayson said.
(Reporting by Kathy Finn; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter and Jonathan Allen in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing by Scott Malone and Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Bill Trott and Peter Cooney)
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2019.