NEW ORLEANS - Homeowners sandbagged their doors and tourists trying to get out of town jammed the airport Friday as Tropical Storm Barry began rolling in with the potential for an epic drenching that could prove whether New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana learned the lessons of Hurricane Katrina over a decade ago.
With the strengthening storm expected to blow ashore early Saturday near Morgan City as the first hurricane of the season, authorities rushed to close floodgates and raise the barriers around the metropolitan area of 1.3 million people.
About 3,000 National Guard troops along with other rescue crews were posted around the state with boats, high-water vehicles and helicopters. Drinking water was lined up, and utility crews with bucket trucks moved into position in the region.
"This is happening. ... Your preparedness window is shrinking," National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham warned. He added: "It's powerful. It's strengthening. And water is going to be a big issue."
While 10,000 people or more in exposed, low-lying areas along the Gulf coast were told to leave, no evacuations were ordered in New Orleans, where city officials instead urged residents to "shelter in place" starting at 8 p.m.
Forecasters said slow-moving Barry could unload 10 to 20 inches of rain through Sunday across a swath of Louisiana that includes New Orleans and Baton Rouge, as well as southwestern Mississippi, with pockets in Louisiana getting 25 inches.
The storm's leading edges lashed the state with bands of rain for most of the day, and some coastal roads were already under water Friday morning.
Barry was expected to arrive as a weak hurricane, just barely over the 74 mph windspeed threshold. But authorities warned people not to be fooled by that.
In the Algiers Point neighborhood, a crowd was ready to pounce on the next delivery of sand. A handful of little sandbags could be the difference in protecting their homes.
Willie Brumfield's home already flooded during heavy rain on Wednesday.
“I'm out here trying to get some sand to support around my house,” he said.
Brumfield is hoping round two isn't lurking in the Gulf, but he's ready for whatever comes his way.
“When Katrina came through here, some people stayed. Some people ran. So when it's time to run, it's time to run.”
Late Friday afternoon, Barry was about 70 miles southeast of Morgan City, with winds of 65 mph. Tracking forecasts showed the storm continuing on toward Chicago, swelling the Mississippi River basin with water that must eventually flow south again.
4pm Advisory from NHC has #Barry making landfall Saturday morning as a Category 1 storm. Heavy rain and flooding likely. #Lafayette Parish under voluntary #evacuation. #tropics #fox4weather #lawx #TSBarry #hurricane pic.twitter.com/LUWZdiGS1Q— Dan Henry (@Fox4Weather) July 12, 2019
For the first time in several years, officials have closed more than 200 flood gates throughout Southeast Louisiana.
The storm is hardly the most monstrous to hit The Crescent City, but it's the first to hit with the Mississippi running this high. It’s partly the result of heavy rain this year throughout the Midwest.
The Army Corps of Engineers say the river levees will hold, but the river isn't the only problem.
"Nobody should take this storm lightly just because it's supposed to be a Category 1 when it makes landfall," Gov. John Bel Edwards said. "The real danger in this storm was never about the wind anyway. It's always been about the rain."
Barry's downpours could prove to be a severe test of the improvements made to New Orleans' flood defenses since the city was devastated by Katrina in 2005. The Mississippi River is already running abnormally high because of heavy spring rains and snowmelt upstream, and the ground around New Orleans is soggy because of an 8-inch torrent earlier this week.
The Mississippi is expected to crest Saturday at about 19 feet in New Orleans, where the levees protecting the city range from about 20 to 25 feet in height. That could leave only a small margin of safety in some places, particularly if the storm were to change direction or intensity.
Paulette Montero had her businesses in the historic French Quarter boarded up after they already flooded during Wednesday's heavy rain.
“You couldn't get into the French Quarter,” she said. “Most of the exits were blocked off that day.”
New Orleans’ pump system can only move so much water out of the city at one time. Flooding is almost guaranteed.
With high ground a scarce commodity in the low-lying city, folks have moved their belongings to whatever sliver of land they can find. They are not worried about the wind but rather keeping the water at bay.
President Donald Trump declared a federal emergency for Louisiana, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate relief efforts.
Katrina caused catastrophic flooding in New Orleans 14 years ago and was blamed for more than 1,800 deaths in Louisiana and other states, by some estimates.
In its aftermath, the Army Corps of Engineers began a multibillion-dollar hurricane-protection system that isn't complete. The work included repairs and improvements to some 350 miles of levees and more than 70 pumping stations.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.