Louisiana declares state of emergency over possible hurricane

A storm swamped New Orleans streets and paralyzed traffic Wednesday as concerns grew that even worse weather was on the way: a possible hurricane that could strike the Gulf Coast and raise the Mississippi River to the brim of the city’s protective levees.

By Wednesday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) had issued a hurricane watch for parts of the southern coast of Louisiana.

The agency said conditions appeared favourable for a weather system in the Gulf of Mexico to strengthen into a hurricane as it approaches the United States coastline by this weekend. Forecasters said the weather disturbance is expected to become a tropical depression by Thursday morning, a tropical storm by that night and a hurricane on Friday.

The storm is most likely to make landfall west of New Orleans on Saturday, National Weather Service senior hurricane specialist Jack Beven said.

Forecasters are calling the weather system “potential tropical cyclone two.”

Forecasters said parts of the central Gulf Coast could see a total of up to 30 centimetres of rain, with up to 46 centimetres in isolated areas. As much as 18 centimetres of rain fell in New Orleans over a three-hour period Wednesday morning, forecasters said.

All that rain turned the city’s streets into small, swift rivers that overturned garbage cans and picked up pieces of floating wood. Water was up to the doors of many cars. Other vehicles were abandoned, while kayakers paddled their way down some streets.

Chandris Rethmeyer lost her car to the flood and had to wade through water more than a metre deep to get to safety. She was on her way home after working an overnight shift when she got stuck behind an accident in an underpass and the water started rising.

“I was going to sit in my car and let the storm pass,” she said. “But I reached back to get my son’s iPad and put my hand into a puddle of water.”

Motorists in New Orleans try to manoeuvre around a flooded intersection following heavy rain. (Max Becherer/The Advocate via Associated Press)

Valerie R. Burton woke up Wednesday to what looked like a lake outside her door.

“There was about three to four feet of water in the street, pouring onto the sidewalks and at my door,” she said. “So I went to my neighbours to alert them and tell them to move their cars.”

It was all a grim reminder of sudden flooding that surprised the city during an August 2017 rain. That flood exposed major problems at the agency overseeing street drainage. It led to personnel shake-ups at the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board and required major repair efforts.

On Wednesday, the board said 118 of 120 drainage pumps were operational and the agency was fully staffed.

Levees ‘in good shape’

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a statewide emergency Wednesday, and said National Guard troops and high-water vehicles would be positioned all over the state.

“The entire coast of Louisiana is at play in this storm,” Edwards said. “No one should take this storm lightly.”

He warned that a “considerable” amount of water could over-top levees that hold back the Mississippi River in the New Orleans area as emergency officials prepare for a potential weekend storm.

That’s because the Mississippi River is already swollen from spring rains as the weather system builds in the Gulf and could add about a metre of storm surge to the river.

Forecasters said the storm in the Gulf of Mexico is expected to become a hurricane on Friday. (David Grunfeld/The Advocate via Associated Press)

Ricky Boyett, a spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, said the agency was not expecting widespread overtopping of the levees, but there are concerns for areas south of the city. The river was expected to rise to six metres by late Friday at a key gauge in New Orleans. The area is protected by levees that are six to 7.6 metres high, he said.

Army engineers were working with local officials to identify any low-lying areas and reinforce them, Boyett said. He cautioned that the situation may change as more information about the storm arrives.

“We’re confident the levees themselves are in good shape,” he said. “The big focus is height.”

Forecasters expect a broad area of disturbed weather in the Gulf to become stronger this weekend when it threatens the region with torrential rain.

Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas are all making preparations for heavy rain and possible flooding.

‘Prepare yourself,’ governor warns

New Orleans has been battered by devastating floods before, including 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which left most of the city under water, killed hundreds of residents and displaced 130,000 people from Louisiana’s largest city.

Foreshadowing the looming threat, New Orleans was hit early Wednesday by thunderstorms that meteorologists said were associated with the building storm. A water spout, a weather phenomenon that looks like a tornado, formed over Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans, leading the National Weather Service to issue a tornado warning for the city.

City hall was closed, while oil producers curbed output and evacuated Gulf oil platforms as the storm approached.

New Orleans officials advised residents to gather water, non-perishable food and other emergency items ahead of the storm.

“If you haven’t already prepared yourself and your family for a severe weather event, you need to go ahead and do that,” Edwards, the governor, said.

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