Hurricane watch in effect as flash floods hit New Orleans

The Louisiana coast is being drenched three days before forecasters say the first hurricane of the season is expected to make landfall.

The National Weather Service on Wednesday issued a hurricane watch for most of the state’s coast as Potential Tropical Cyclone Two churned more than 200 miles off the coast.

The storm is forecast to strengthen to a Category 1 hurricane, named Barry, by the time it crashes ashore between Lake Charles and Lafayette sometime Saturday afternoon, the agency said. The hurricane watch didn’t, for the moment, encompass major metropolitan areas like New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

The storm couldn’t come at a worse time. Flash floods from heavy rains on Wednesday were already battering New Orleans, where nearly 10 inches of rain had fallen on some neighborhoods by noon.

Meteorologists said the Mississippi River could rise to 19 feet by the weekend, just a foot short of the height of the city’s aging levees.

“Even though I grew up with Midwestern tornadoes and summer storms, this was next level in terms of the absolute deluge of water coming down so fast,” Ellen Austin, a high school teacher from California who was in town for a convention, said.

“The water just came up in the streets in what felt like no time at all,” Austin said. “And we have been cut off, with doors blocked with towels to keep water out, since this morning. It’s been a bit surreal.”

A waterspout, a kind of a tornado that forms over a body of water, was spotted over Lake Pontchartrain.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards on Wednesday declared a state of emergency as residents and tourists fled for cover or higher ground.

“Right now, we believe that any overtopping of the levees will be relatively short duration of about 12 hours, but that is still a very, very significant hazard,” Edwards said.

“No one should take this storm lightly,” he said. “As we know all too well in Louisiana, low intensity does not necessarily mean low impact.”

Forecasters predicted that the storm would strengthen through Saturday, becoming a tropical depression by Thursday morning, then a tropical storm by Thursday night and then Hurricane Barry on Friday.

The National Weather Service said the system’s slow movement would result in a “long duration heavy rainfall threat” along the central Gulf Coast inland through the lower Mississippi Valley through the weekend and possibly even into early next week. It warned that a dangerous storm surge, combined with the tide, would cause usually dry areas near the coast to flood.

But Ricky Boyett, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the corps was confident that the levees, which can protect up to 25 feet in some spots and 20 feet at the lowest spots, would protect the Gulf Coast from major flooding.

“If you’re at 20 feet on the levee, you’re going to get a little splash,” Boyett told WDSU. “You’re going to get a little overtopping, and that usually dissipates. … However, if you get natural flow over the levee, you will get flooding in the interior of this system.”

It’s hard to know with any precision exactly where the system will go three days in advance, and authorities from Alabama to Texas were keeping wary eyes on the forecast.

“Severe weather is severe weather, and the potential is there, so you need to be prepared and be ready,” said Mike Evans, deputy director of emergency services in Mobile County, Alabama.

However hard or lightly the Alabama coast is hit, the storm will mark the debut of Mobile County’s new Emergency Operations Center, which is built to withstand a hurricane, complete with generators, a kitchen and plenty of places for people to sleep, Evans said.

“It’ll be a great exercise to be prepared for the rest of the season — because we are just getting started,” he said.

In east Texas, where many communities are still recovering from the damage of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Gov. Gregg Abbott urged residents to “begin preparing your property, begin preparing your supplies, begin preparing your lines of communication to your family members, begin preparing where exactly it is where you’ll be going to in the event you need to evacuate.”

“We want to make sure the state of Texas is doing all we can,” he said.