Updated at 3 p.m. ET
Tropical Storm Barry is beginning to take a toll on the central Gulf Coast, bringing high winds and heavy rains to parts of southeastern Louisiana, where residents have been preparing to cope with flooding and power outages.
As Barry slowly approached land, an oil rig southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River reported “sustained winds of 76 mph and a wind gust of 87 mph,” the National Hurricane Center said Friday.
In New Orleans, officials are telling residents to get off the streets and be ready to shelter in place by 8 p.m. local time.
“This is a life-threatening situation,” the hurricane center says, noting that storm surge could bring 3 to 6 feet of water inland to an area from the mouth of the Atchafalaya River (some 60 miles south of Baton Rouge) to Shell Beach (20 miles southeast of New Orleans).
A slightly smaller surge is predicted for other areas, from Lake Pontchartrain to Biloxi, Miss. But officials are also closely monitoring river levels, concerned that heavy rains could bring deadly flooding. At least six regional rivers are expected to have moderate to major flooding, according to the National Weather Service office in New Orleans.
In terms of wind speed, Barry might be a fairly weak hurricane when it makes landfall in Louisiana late Friday or early Saturday — but people in its path are far more worried about flood risks from its heavy rains and storm surge than damage from its winds.
“Barry is expected to produce total rain accumulations of 10 to 20 inches over southeast Louisiana and southwest Mississippi, with isolated maximum amounts of 25 inches,” the National Hurricane Center says. “These rains are expected to lead to dangerous, life-threatening flooding over portions of the central Gulf Coast into the Lower Mississippi Valley.”
As of 1 p.m. ET Friday, Barry’s maximum sustained winds had strengthened to nearly 65 mph, the hurricane center says, citing data from “Hurricane Hunter” aircraft. At the time, the storm was about 100 miles south-southeast of Morgan City, La.; forecasters say Barry could become a Category 1 hurricane before it makes landfall.
The storm is predicted to make landfall southwest of Morgan City, La., before moving inland toward Lafayette.
A hurricane warning — meaning hurricane conditions are expected — has been declared for the area from Grand Isle (some 50 miles south of New Orleans) westward to Intracoastal City, which sits along the Vermilion River.
With the storm looming, oil and gas workers in the Gulf of Mexico have temporarily abandoned rigs and platforms, according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
By halting work at 257 production platforms and 21 rigs, the federal agency says, energy companies have cut off capacity that normally produces some 1.1 million barrels of oil per day — nearly 59% of current U.S. production in the Gulf. In addition, natural gas output has been cut by 1.35 billion cubic feet — 49 percent of normal production.
Water levels were already rising along the coast Friday morning; the hurricane center says “peak inundation” won’t occur until Saturday. Images from Grand Isle on Friday showed streets and yards covered with water near the coast — where most of the houses are perched on pilings.
For the past 24 hours, Barry has crept along at about 5 mph, increasing concerns that it will slowly but steadily drench low-lying areas that have already been saturated with water in recent weeks. The storm isn’t expected to start leaving Louisiana until late Sunday.
Intense rainfall, like Barry is expected to bring, can trigger calamitous flooding. And with many areas along the lower Mississippi River already struggling to cope with huge amounts of rainwater from upriver, people in Louisiana and Mississippi are preparing for the worst.
Officials in New Orleans and nearby parishes have said their levees have room to accommodate 5 to 6 more feet of floodwaters. On Friday, many of the floodgates near the river were closed.
“Breezy with scattered showers here in New Orleans,” NPR’s Debbie Elliott reported Friday morning, as the city braced for the storm. Tulane University and other schools had already planned to be closed Friday, along with government offices and youth programs.
To the west, the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office said a floodgate at the small town of Cocodrie was closed Friday to help protect towns inland from Barry’s storm surge, NPR’s Rebecca Hersher says.
“Cocodrie is almost entirely empty this morning,” Hersher reports from Louisiana. She adds, “In Houma, southwest of New Orleans, a shelter opened this morning for people who are voluntarily evacuating from areas that aren’t protected by levees.”
In Terrebonne as well as in neighboring Jefferson Parish, Baton Rouge and other parts of Louisiana, residents have been filling sandbags for the past two days, shoring up against floodwaters.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has declared a state of emergency for the entire state; on Thursday, he said he had also ordered 3,000 National Guard members to be deployed in case they are needed in rescue and recovery operations.
In New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Cantrell says via Twitter, “High water vehicles and boats are pre-staged around the city should water rescues be necessary.”