Written by Richard Fausset, Emily Lane and Beau Evans
Hurricane Barry crept onto the shores of Louisiana west of flood-weary New Orleans on Saturday, drawing cautious optimism from city residents who saw little rainfall from the storm as of evening, and from officials in western coastal parishes that were drenched and battered but had prepared for much worse.
After a brief life as a Category 1 hurricane, Barry was downgraded to a tropical storm as it made landfall and continued to weaken. But the threat of flooding brought on by the storms incessant rain remained high, particularly in and around Baton Rouge, as the system churned north.
This is just the beginning, Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana said at a midafternoon news conference. I ask everyone to stay vigilant and be safe. This has always been projected to be a rain-flood event and it will be.
The governor said that officials were closely watching the Amite and Comite rivers. These rain-swollen waterways contributed to the catastrophic flooding in and around Baton Rouge in August 2016 that killed 13 people and displaced tens of thousands, some of whom have not been able to move back into their houses.
In a late-evening news conference, Edwards said the crests of the rivers would be somewhat lower than anticipated. However, I should point out that even the revised crest heights qualify as major flooding and present serious threats to life and property.
And so, as French Quarter tourists in ponchos set out tentatively in a light drizzle Saturday afternoon for sightseeing and barhopping, Baton Rouge residents wondered if they were in for a tragic repeat of 2016.
In the neighborhood of Comite Hills, just outside Baton Rouge, Karl and Stephanie Will worked to elevate anything in their home stored lower than 3 feet off the floor. The 2016 flood, they said, brought 2 1/2 feet of water in. They gutted everything to the ceiling and just finished their repairs in December.
Now it looked like everything could be ruined again. And there was nothing to do but wait for the river to rise. Just waiting is the hardest part, said Stephanie Will, 53.
The storm came ashore near Intracoastal City, Louisiana, a low-lying industrial town in Vermilion Parish, south of Lafayette. Becky Broussard, the parishs homeland security director, said that the lone road leading to the town had flooded but that her office had not received any calls about structural damage so far. She estimated that around 75 people live in Intracoastal City, which was under a voluntary evacuation.
The storm moved north and west, with maximum sustained winds of 65 mph. It was expected to plow through the state toward the Arkansas border.
The storm was originally expected to make landfall around Morgan City, Louisiana. A near citywide blackout there prompted officials to shut down the faltering electrical system to make repairs, meaning that the power would stay off through the storm.
Still, the 30 inches of rain that the mayor, Frank Grizzaffi, had been expecting turned out to be much less. More rain was still to come, but by midday Grizzaffi was in better spirits. Things are pretty good here, he said. For the most part, were holding up.
Elsewhere there was trouble. More than 121,000 people were without power in Louisiana as of Saturday afternoon, according to the states largest energy companies.
In Plaquemines Parish, down the road from New Orleans, officials said earthen levees along Highway 23 and cow pastures had overtopped in spots, sending water into the sparsely populated Myrtle Grove and Point Celeste communities. A parish spokeswoman there said the levees had not been breached, although the parish president, Kirk Lenin, said the highway eventually could become impassable.
In rural Terrebonne Parish, a small levee that overtopped prompted officials there to order a mandatory evacuation for about 330 residents in the parishs lowest reaches Saturday afternoon. The U.S. Coast Guard rescued about a dozen people by helicopter Saturday morning from Isle de Jean Charles, a community of about two dozen people outside the areas flood protection system, said Mart Black, a Terrebonne Parish official.
Strong gusts of wind and steady rain began to whip Lafayette by the afternoon, although it remained, for the moment, flood-free. The real test would start around 7 p.m., when the system was expected to pass over Lafayette, said the citys mayor-president, Joel Robideaux. How bad things could get remained the million-dollar question, he said.
In New Orleans this past week, many had feared that the storm would deluge an already-engorged Mississippi River, straining the multibillion-dollar flood protection system put in place since Hurricane Katrina struck 14 summers ago. But some of those fears were assuaged Saturday when officials said that the river was predicted to crest at 17.1 feet by Monday about 2 feet lower than earlier estimates. Although flood stage for the city is at 17 feet, most of the fortresslike levees and flood walls are at least 20 feet high.
By evening, though, the National Weather Service said that heavy rain was expected in New Orleans, issuing tornado and flash flood warnings for the city.
New Orleans officials had advised most residents to shelter in place rather than leave town. A rainstorm earlier in the week caused extensive street flooding, ruining cars and stranding motorists. That raised questions about the efficacy of the citys century-old pumping system, revamped since Katrina but often subject to power failures and other glitches.
While officials at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said their $20 billion post-Katrina flood protection system would protect the city, faith in the corps remains shallow among many residents who blame the agency for engineering flaws that contributed to the catastrophe in 2005.
There was also concern that the Louisiana coast was entering a new era of challenges in a changing climate. Although linking any individual weather event to climate change requires extensive scientific analysis, Barry and the trouble it is causing carry the hallmarks of a warming planets influence on weather events.
While the Gulf Coast has always had hurricanes, the extreme rain associated with this storm, originally projected to be anywhere from 10 to 20 inches, or even more, fits into emerging scientific research that suggests that climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of storms with heavy rainfall.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said Saturday that flooding was still a threat and warned people to not get comfortable. We are not out of the conditions that will cause heavy rainfall for the city of New Orleans, she said.
But some worry had already begun to drain out of the city. On Saturday afternoon in the historic Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, Ben Speight, an employee of a mule-drawn carriage company, sauntered up to a resident, Christopher Stanton, who was sitting on his stoop.
You think its going to do anything? Speight said, referring to the storm.
Oh, I dont know, replied Stanton, 70. Maybe a little bit of something.
Stanton, a retired respiratory therapist, had seen a house in New Orleans East destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, but this place on Pauger Street was his familys ancestral home. There was no place he knew better. And he said he was increasingly worried. Since the last so many years, Ive seen more flooding than I ever have before. It didnt used to be like that, he said.
He showed a cellphone video of floodwaters on Pauger Street just last Wednesday. It had come up to the first step of his stoop. Climate change could be the culprit, he said. But it could also be that the pumps are so old that theyre not working as well.
Barry had already collided with plans for the weekend. Officials confirmed that federal immigration raids that were expected this weekend would not take place in New Orleans because of the storm. Flights to and from Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport were canceled. The Rolling Stones pushed a Superdome concert originally scheduled for Sunday back to Monday.
At the Will familys painstakingly restored home outside Baton Rouge, a large red storage unit in the driveway contained belongings that had still not been brought back into the house since the 2016 flood. The couple runs a cake-making business from home, and the storage unit was stuffed with cookbooks. Stephanie Will said she expected the storage unit to flood, too, if the river gets as high as its forecast.
If their home did flood again, the couple said, they might start over and fix it up again or sell everything, Karl Will said, half-joking, and move to the desert where it doesnt rain.