(CN) – Local officials mandated evacuations Thursday morning in low-lying areas surrounding New Orleans after a system in the Gulf of Mexico, which has since been upgraded to a tropical storm, dumped up to 8 inches of rain on the coastal city in just three hours the day before.
The National Hurricane Center predicted that the slow-moving Tropical Storm Barry could become a hurricane by Friday, warning that the biggest danger from the storm was not the wind but sustained heavy rain. It is expected to make landfall on Saturday morning.
“The slow movement of this system will result in a long duration heavy rainfall threat along the central Gulf Coast and inland through the lower Mississippi Valley through the weekend and potentially into next week,” the center said Wednesday.
As Tropical Storm Barry grew into what forecasters expected to be a Category 1 hurricane, officials and the public spent the day preparing for the weekend ahead.
The city did not plan on ordering mass evacuations outside of a few specific areas because Barry was not expected to grow past Category 1. However, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell warned that the pumping infrastructure in the city may not be able to keep up with rising water levels.
“We cannot pump our way out of the water levels… that are expected to hit the city of New Orleans,” she said.
Troops from the National Guard and other emergency rescue personnel readied themselves in the state’s coastal areas as Barry approached, other officials distributed sand bags to residents as they gathered essentials before the storm, which loomed about 90 miles south of the Mississippi River’s mouth and reached wind speeds of 40 mph.
The Mississippi River is also a factor in the mandatory evacuation order, due to the fact that it is already higher than usual.
The Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans said it is not worried about the structural integrity of the levee system surrounding the city. Instead, it has been monitoring water levels in case floodwaters spill over the levees.
“We’re confident the levees themselves are in good shape,” Army Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said. “The big focus is height.”
An Army Corps database showed sections of the levee below 20 feet high, which could pose a problem if water levels reach predicted heights above that level.
Though the agency originally backed the data as accurate, Boyett disputed the assertion that some portions were closer to 18 feet. He said that the lowest levees were 20 feet high, though by that time forecasters had already updated their flood predictions to 19 feet.
Overall, Boyett said that overtops on the levee are expected, though he reiterated the strength of the structures themselves.
“We’re confident with the integrity – the levees are extremely robust and designed to handle a lot of pressure,” he said.
In addition to the rain, forecasters expect that New Orleans will face strong winds as the storm develops toward hurricane status, with a storm surge that will cause waterways to rise and flood dry areas. The stormy could also bring tornadoes Thursday night and into Friday.
With an ear to radio reports of Tropical Storm Barr, candy maker Ron Kottemann prepared a taffy-like chocolate, vanilla and strawberry Roman candy from his wagon, pulled by his mule, “Miss May,” along the historic New Orleans streetcar tracks which have been replaced by city buses.
Asked how long he will keep working, Kottemann said, “Depends on the weather. Maybe about 5 o’ clock.”
He and Miss May planned to return to the shelter of an uptown stable.
Reacting to radio news reports of 15 to 20 inches of rain forecast for Friday through Sunday, “Now is the time to prepare,” auto mechanic Gerlando “G” Riolo said in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, La. “Shelter in place or evacuate. People need to check on their family members and neighbors, especially the elderly,” Riolo said.
“I knew two elderly people who died in Lakeview during Katrina – 10 feet of water,” Riolo said of a nearby neighborhood across the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans. “History repeats itself with storms around here.”
Riolo said vehicles should be inspected before Barry makes landfall. “Tires ready, fluids checked and fill up on gas.”
U.S. Senator John Kennedy, R-La., encouraged his constituents to be safe and not take risks during the storm.
“I guess my message to all of us is, and I say it to myself as well as my constituents: don’t be stupid, don’t take risks, make sure you’re ready,” he said in a video posted on Twitter Thursday morning.
Kennedy also listed necessary precautions such as making sure people in the storm’s path have nonperishable food, potable water and gas in their cars before the potential hurricane makes landfall.
Despite the severe weather, the senator was still prepared to make the trip back from Washington, D.C., to Louisiana.
“We’ll get through this. The people of Louisiana are tough as a pine knot,” he said. “We’ve been through this many, many times, but we can’t let our guard down.”