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Tropical Storm Barry Is a Huge Test for New Orleans’ Flood System

The National Weather Service is projecting a “life-threatening storm surge” and rains on par with Hurricanes Harvey and Florence.

by Alex Lubben
Jul 12 2019, 3:27pm

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So much water flooded New Orleans this week that people took to the streets in kayaks. And some made better time than the cars, struggling through door-deep water.

Although the flooding from a freak rainstorm that hit the city Wednesday has subsided for now, the situation will likely only get worse. Tropical Storm Barry could become a hurricane by the time it makes landfall in Louisiana Friday night or Saturday morning. And the National Weather Service is projecting a “life-threatening storm surge” and rains on par with Harvey and Florence, two of the rainiest hurricanes on record.

By then, the city will face dual threats: the surge along the coast and water levels on the Mississippi River, which have hit historic highs this year. And forecasters expect the river to surge 19 feet as Barry makes landfall. The city has started closing up its levees in preparation for this weekend’s rains, but they only protect against surges of between 20 and 21 feet, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. The waters could overtake the city’s barriers and flood the streets of New Orleans yet again.

“The last time the river was this high was back in the 1920s before the levee and floodway systems were developed,” Jeff Graschel, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service’s Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center.

After Hurricane Katrina, the city made $14.6 billion worth of investments in its flood-protection systems, including huge pumps designed to flush water out. But Katrina flooded the city primarily from the seaward side of the city; the Mississippi wasn’t as high then. In 2005, as Katrina made landfall, the Mississippi was at 3 feet above sea-level. It’s now at 16 feet. And up to 25 inches of rain are projected to pelt Louisiana as the storm settles over the state.

Evacuations were already planned in areas south of New Orleans, though the city has yet to issue an evacuation order. New Orleanians were stocking up on supplies as the storm moved toward land. Cars lined up at Costcos to fill up on gas, people bought pricey generators, and bottled water disappeared from store shelves. But for many people, Barr’s projected Category 1 status seems like more an inconvenience than a cause for panic, according to Nola.com.

On the other hand, hurricane categories reflect about the strength of the wind. If Barry does major damage, which it very well could, it won’t be because of the winds: The storm’s rainfall and flooding will hit the city the hardest.

More rain and evacuations

When the surprise seven inches of rain soaked New Orleans Wednesday before Barry even made landfall, residents abandoned their cars in the streets. One man even decided to swim down the street — which, for the record, is a terrible idea, since the water could be contaminated.

Some told Nola.com that the floods were as bad as they’d seen or worse. And much more rain is expected as the storm makes landfall.

Low-lying Jefferson Parish has been ordered to evacuate, as has Plaquemines Parish, both coastal areas to the south of New Orleans. But even as the storm’s track continues to shift east toward the city, officials are holding off on calling for New Orleanians to pack up and leave. They don’t think the conditions are projected to be quite bad enough to justify an evacuation.

The city has something of a history of being overly optimistic about its chances of weathering big storms. The new flood maps put out by FEMA this year declared most of the city — even parts that sit below sea level and took on ten feet of water after Katrina — to be safe from flooding.

“We will make those calls [about evacuations] once we feel they need to be made,” said New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell at a press conference earlier this week. “As it relates to residents leaving, people can make up their own mind based on conditions now. That’s something that they can always do.”

High rivers and hot oceans

Louisiana is also used to seeing hurricanes — just not this early in the season. In the 168 years since hurricane records started to be kept, hurricanes have hit Louisiana in July only three times, according to the New Republic.

Plus, rainfall records have been shattered across the U.S. this year. The last 12-month period was the wettest on record across the country, which broke the record set the month before, which broke the record set a month before that.

Much of that rain filters down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

“There’s clearly no time in the recent past when we’ve had anywhere close to these [river] levels,” Graschel said.

The storm is also picking up steam thanks to the Gulf of Mexico’s higher than normal water temperatures, which, at up to 4 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than normal, are closer to what they’d be during peak hurricane season.

Cover image: Delilah Campbell, 4, clears out driftwood and other debris in preparation of Tropical Storm Barry near New Orleans, La., Thursday, July 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

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