Thu. 9:05 a.m.: Louisiana braces for slow-moving possible weekend hurricane

Terrian Jones reacts as she feels something moving in the water at her feet Wednesday as she carries Drew and Chance Furlough to their mother on Belfast Street in New Orleans during flooding from a storm in the Gulf Mexico that dumped lots of rain. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A potential tropical storm brewing in the Gulf of Mexico presents twin troubles for coastal Louisiana and Mississippi — the possibility that the flooded Mississippi River will be lapping at the tops of levees this weekend, and a danger of flash floods like the one that unexpectedly walloped New Orleans on Wednesday.

The Gulf of Mexico disturbance that dumped as much as 8 inches of rain in just three hours over parts of metro New Orleans was forecast to strengthen into a tropical depression today, then a tropical storm called Barry tonight, and, possibly, a weak hurricane by Friday.

By this morning, the weather system had maximum sustained winds near 35 mph, according to National Hurricane Center advisory. It was centered about 115 miles south-southeast of the mouth of Mississippi River.

A hurricane watch was in effect for the Louisiana coast from the mouth of the Mississippi River to Cameron.

The biggest danger in the days to come is not destructive winds, but ceaseless rain, the National Hurricane Center warned: “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.”

Forecasters said Louisiana could see up to 12 inches of rain by Monday, with isolated areas receiving as much as 18 inches. And the storm’s surge at the mouth of the Mississippi could also mean a river that’s been running high for months will rise even higher.

Southeastern Texas also was at risk of torrential rains.

New Orleans got an early taste Wednesday of what may be in store. News outlets said a tornado may have been responsible for wind damage to one home, while floodwaters invaded some downtown hotels and businesses as streets became small rivers that accommodated kayakers. The floods paralyzed rush-hour traffic and stalled cars around the city.

It all happened fast.

“I must have got to work about a quarter to 7,” said Donald Smith, who saw his restaurant on Basin Street flood for the third time this year. “By 7:15, water was everywhere.”

It brought memories of a 2017 flash flood that exposed major problems — and led to major personnel changes — at the Sewerage and Water Board, which oversees street drainage. City officials said the pumping system that drains streets was at full capacity. But the immense amount of rain in three hours would overwhelm any system, said Sewerage and Water Board director Ghassan Korban.

The Mississippi is already running so high that officials in Plaquemines Parish at Louisiana’s southeastern tip ordered evacuations of some areas to begin today. A voluntary evacuation was called on Grand Isle, the vulnerable barrier island community south of New Orleans. Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a statewide emergency in light of the gathering storm.

A spokesman for the 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 weather service expects the river to rise to 20 feet by Saturday morning at a key gauge in the New Orleans area, which is protected by levees 20 to 25 feet high.

The Corps was working with local officials down river to identify any low-lying areas and reinforce them, spokesman Ricky Boyett said. He cautioned that the situation may change as more information arrives.

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

Edwards 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,” the governor said.

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