Tropical Storm Barry Live Updates: Louisiana Braces for Landfall

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CreditJohnny Milano for The New York Times

Tropical Storm Barry is expected to sweep into south Louisiana as a Category 1 hurricane early Saturday morning. By 4 a.m. local time, the storm’s rain bands had begun battering the coast, though it had yet to make landfall. The storm strengthened has slightly as it nears the coast, with maximum sustained wind speeds currently at 70 miles per hour.

But wind speeds are not what is troubling much of the region. Experts predict possible rains of up to 25 inches in parts of southern Louisiana and coastal Mississippi, and the slow-moving storm could create big flooding risks in inland areas like greater Baton Rouge. Officials issued mandatory evacuation orders in communities along the coast, including parts of Plaquemines, Jefferson and Lafourche parishes.

Forecasters predicted that Barry would run ashore near Morgan City, a small town about 20 miles from the southern coast of Louisiana where residents said they had been lucky to elude recent hurricanes, including Katrina.

New Orleans, while not expected to take a direct hit, is worrying about whether its flood-protection infrastructure will be up to the task.

This storm could be among the biggest tests to the city’s complex pump-and-levee protection system since Hurricane Katrina.

The city, which is largely below sea level, relies on dozens of massive drainage pumps to flush water out of its streets, and on miles of federal levees to block storm surges. But the aging pumps have proved vulnerable to breakdowns and power losses in recent years, while spring flooding has pushed the river higher over the last several months, nearly to the top of the levees.

While the trauma of the levee failures from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is still vivid in the city’s memory, New Orleans officials see the rain as the greatest threat to safety and are focusing on the performance of the drainage pumps. Mayor LaToya Cantrell urged city residents to shelter in their homes starting on Friday night.

Three years of crushing natural disasters have dwindled the ranks of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, potentially straining its ability to help victims of the storm.

Fewer than a quarter of the 13,654 people in FEMA’s trained disaster work force are available to assist with Barry or indeed any other emergency, agency documents show, because the rest are deployed elsewhere or otherwise unavailable. That is down from the 34 percent who were available at this point in 2018, and from 55 percent two years ago.

“I’m worried,” said Elizabeth A. Zimmerman, who ran FEMA’s disaster operations during the Obama administration. “That’s of concern, to make sure that there are enough people to respond.”

[Read more here about the concerns over short-staffing at FEMA.]

The Gulf Coast has always had hurricanes, of course. But the extreme rain associated with this storm, projected to be 10 to 20 inches or even more, fits into emerging research suggesting that climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of storms with heavy rainfall.

A warming atmosphere can hold more moisture, dumping it out in form of heavy downpours — a phenomenon seen not just in storms like Barry, but in the record floods across much of the Midwest this year.

Those floodwaters have fed the Mississippi River, keeping it at flood stage at many points. The Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carre spillway above New Orleans twice in one season for the first time since it was built in 1931.

[Read about how hurricanes are getting wetter as the climate changes.]

The city has already flooded from the leading edge of the storm, and the additional rains and storm surge threaten to bring the level of the Mississippi perilously close the top of the city’s fortresslike levees. These simultaneous threats are consistent with a paper published last year that says such situations will become more common with climate change — “like a terror movie that is real.”

Video

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Rising ocean temperatures have fueled some of the most devastating storms in recent years. Kendra Pierre-Louis, a reporter on The New York Times’s climate team, explains how.

Richard Fausset reported from New Orleans and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs from New York. Reporting was contributed by Emily Lane and Beau Evans from New Orleans; Dave Montgomery from Morgan City, La.; Christopher Flavelle from Washington; and John Schwartz from New York.

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