With only hours to go before Tropical Storm Barry was expected to strengthen into a hurricane and cross the Louisiana coastline, residents were filling sandbags and stocking up on food and gas on Friday to hunker down for a storm that could drench them with up to 20 inches of rain.
Officials on the ground were most worried about dangerous surges of water and the high chance of flash flooding. They were less concerned about wind speeds; on Friday, the stormâ€™s winds hit 65 miles per hour, still about 10 m.p.h. shy of a Category 1 hurricane.
With the Mississippi River at 16.2 feet above sea level, the authorities said that for the first time they had shut all the river floodgates ringing most of New Orleans and the neighboring St. Bernard Parish. Before the arrival of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Mississippi was two feet above sea level. Katrina made landfall first in southeast Louisiana as a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 125 m.p.h.
â€śThis is the first time in history a hurricane will strike Louisiana while the Mississippi River is in flood stage,â€ť Gov. John Bel Edwards said Friday, adding that he expected widespread power losses and some search-and-rescue missions. A â€śhuge portion of southern Louisianaâ€ť was at risk, he said.
As of 4 p.m. Central time, the hurricane was about 70 miles from Morgan City, and a hurricane warning was in effect for a wide swath of the Louisiana coast, stretching from south of Lafayette to the coast south of New Orleans.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans said she would not impose a curfew, but asked residents to â€śstay off the streetâ€ť after 8 p.m. Friday.
Heavy rain is expected to be falling by then, and over the coming days the rainfall could be among the biggest tests to the cityâ€™s complex pump-and-levee protection system since Hurricane Katrina.
The flood-prone city, dipping largely below sea level, relies on dozens of massive drainage pumps to flush water out of its streets and miles of federal levees to block storm surge from the Mississippi River to the south and Lake Pontchartrain to the north. But the aging pumps have proved vulnerable to break downs and power losses in recent years, while spring flooding has pushed the river higher over the last several months to nearly the top of the levees.
Forecasters expect Barry, the yearâ€™s first major tropical stirring, to bring between 10 and 20 inches of rain to the New Orleans metropolitan area and several feet of surge in the surrounding waterways. Barryâ€™s trajectory, just to the west of New Orleans, will most likely leave the city on the stormâ€™s eastern flank, where rains tend to fall heaviest during tropical weather events. During Katrina, about five to ten inches of rain fell in most areas.
While the trauma of the levee failures from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 remains thick, New Orleans government officials are eying the rain as the greatest threat to safety and focusing on the performance of the drainage pumps.
Ghassan Korban, the executive director for New Orleansâ€™s Sewerage & Water Board, which runs the pumps, cautioned on Thursday that the city â€ścould have a repeatâ€ť of widespread flooding seen in the city on Wednesday, when a strong storm dumped up to nine inches of rain in some neighborhoods.
â€śWe have antiquated and old equipment that, again, stand to serve the city,â€ť Mr. Korban said. â€śThey are fragile.â€ť
Morgan Cityâ€™s motto is â€śRight in the Middle of Everywhere.â€ť On Saturday morning, the Louisiana city of 12,000 people may find itself right in the middle of a hurricane.
Forecasters expect Barry to land right on the city, which has had many close calls in recent years but not a direct hit. Residents and business owners are already filling sandbags, gassing up generators and gathering food and water supplies.
â€śWeâ€™ve been dodging the bullet for the last 10 years,â€ť Mayor Frank Grizzaffi said in an interview Thursday. â€śEvery time a hurricane comes up, itâ€™s somewhere near Morgan City. This time, I think weâ€™re finally going to get it.â€ť
Mr. Grizzaffi called for a voluntary evacuation that went into effect at noon Friday, a measure that he said was intended primarily to offer those who did not want to remain trapped in their homes during the brunt of the storm the option of seeking drier ground.
At the same time, however, he acknowledged that many may choose to sit it out.
â€śI believe more people will stick it out than leave,â€ť he said Friday. â€śThatâ€™s just human nature.â€ť
Just before 10 a.m., a steady stream of cars and trucks pulled into a Costco gas station near the Hollygrove neighborhood of New Orleans, between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.
The Rev. Elvin Bazile, 82, filled his pickup truck and also a red gas can in the truckbed to power a generator for his home in neighboring Jefferson Parish. He said he pumped enough gas to drive out of town in case of a last-minute evacuation order. The plan is to stay, he said, â€śunless it gets too bad.â€ť His family has friends in Georgia who are ready to take them in if needed, he said.
â€śMy gut feeling is uncertainty,â€ť Mr. Bazile said about how damaging Barry could be for the New Orleans area. His worry stemmed from both the strength of the storm, he said, as well as the ability of the infrastructure to protect the metro area.
About 3,000 members of the National Guard are being deployed to Louisiana, and 2,600 have already arrived, officials said. About 1,100 of those will be stationed in New Orleans.
On Lakeshore Drive, the curving roadway that edges Lake Pontchartrain, white-capped waves crashed completely over a large concrete embankment, usually a dry area used for jogging and impromptu picnic lunches.
Waves crashed on the bare feet of Joseph Thomas, 51, and his 2-year-old son, Joseph III, on his hip. Mr. Thomas said he planned to ride out the storm at his home in Harvey, a city in Jefferson Parish, unless â€śit gets ridiculous.â€ť
His main concern, he said, is whether the levees hold up.
â€śWe would not be talking about Katrina had the levees not broke,â€ť he said, explaining that it was the failure of the flood protection structure, not the strength of the storm, that wreaked havoc 14 summers ago.
The family had already stocked up with canned ravioli, Gatorade and â€śwater for days,â€ť Mr. Thomas said. They, too, had a backup plan: In the case of an evacuation order or a lengthy loss of power, they would head to Mr. Thomasâ€™s fatherâ€™s home north of Hattiesburg, Miss.
About a dozen people stood in line outside a baseball field tucked in a mostly residential part of New Orleans, as a handful of volunteers shoveled sand into bags before handing them to neighbors and strangers on Friday.
The volunteer sandbag operation came together when Ben Markey, the owner of the Mid City Yacht Club, a bar across the street from the ballpark, picked up the bags. Then a friend of his who owns a logistics company dumped a load of sand near the batting area.
They started handing out sandbags about 7:30 a.m., said Mr. Markey, 43. Social media and local news reports soon spread the word, and about three hours and 200 sandbags later, theyâ€™d run out.
Patrick Staunton, a neighbor, was among those shoveling. â€śI feel guilty we donâ€™t have more,â€ť he said.
The Mid City Yacht Club, which got its name because boats were tied up to the baseball fieldâ€™s fence and abandoned there in the days after Katrina, plans to stay open during the storm.
The business hasnâ€™t flooded since Katrina, but Mr. Markey said he was taking precautions: The bar has a generator, and a couple of sandbags of its own as a last line of defense.
New Orleans, which usually hands out sandbags during severe tropical weather, is not doing so for Barry, Ms. Cantrell said Friday. The city is concerned about sand clogging storm drains, but the mayor said residents can use sandbags if they already have them, or buy them at suppliers like Home Depot, so long as they remove the bags after the storm passes.
But volunteer sandbag operations still popped up, including in Algiers, the sliver of New Orleans located across the Mississippi River. The Algiers Point Association, which represents the historic neighborhood at a sharp bend of the Mississippi, promised two to three bags per home or business, free of charge.
Mr. Korban of the Sewerage & Water Board said that 118 of New Orleansâ€™s total 120 pumps should be working. The pumps draw water from miles of underground pipes and curbside storm drains, and deposit it into canals that flow into Lake Pontchartrain.
Officials frequently stress ahead of storms that heavy rain can overwhelm the capacity of the cityâ€™s drainage system, regardless of how well the old pumps perform.
The pumps also depend partly on power generated by the cityâ€™s local power provider, Entergy New Orleans, which often goes down during strong storms because of lightning outages or damaged power lines.
â€śAgain, we cannot pump our way out of the water levels and the water falls that are expected to hit the city of New Orleans,â€ť Mayor Cantrell of New Orleans said on Thursday. â€śWe need you to understand this, and again be prepared to shelter in place.â€ť
The Sewerage & Water Boardâ€™s pumps suffered major setbacks in the summer of 2017, when a slow-moving deluge flooded much of the city and revealed that more than a dozen drainage pumps and several key power turbines were knocked offline.
Officials then spent around $85 million to repair those pumps and turbines, and have routinely stressed that the water utilityâ€™s shaky drainage equipment is in better shape than it has been for decades.
Aside from rain, officials with the Army Corps of Engineers were closely watching how high Barryâ€™s storm surge was pushing up the Mississippi River along New Orleans. As of Friday morning, the river level stood at just above 16 feet, close to the low point of 20 feet for some stretches of the New Orleans-area federal levees built and maintained by the Army Corps.
Ricky Boyett, a Corps spokesman, said on Friday that the river so far is not projected to rise higher than 19 feet, and that officials do not anticipate any overtopping.
â€śWe do have a lot of confidence,â€ť Mr. Boyett said. â€śThe Mississippi River levees are very robust. Theyâ€™re designed to handle this type of water and pressure.â€ť
Some flights were canceled on Friday at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, according to the cityâ€™s aviation director, Kevin Dolliole, and airlines have also begun waiving fees to change travel plans for flights involving New Orleans.
Amtrak trains and Greyhound buses have been halted at the cityâ€™s Union Passenger Terminal. All public buses, streetcars and ferries over the Mississippi River will be suspended at 8 p.m., the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority announced.
The Coast Guard plans to close the New Orleans stretch of the Mississippi River later on Friday.
But on Friday afternoon, it was not quite business as usual on Bourbon Street, though tourists were milling around and bar employees were trying to lure patrons in with shouts of â€śhurricane specials here!â€ť
Many of the bars were expected to close earlier than usual to help employees return home, and some tourists were loading up on pantry food, bottled water and batteries.
Bianca Shaffer, among a group of women visiting from Pennsylvania for a bachelorette party, said that her group of friends already had the necessary survival supplies bought and stowed in their French Quarter hotel. â€śWeâ€™re not just partying,â€ť she said.
Beau Evans and Emily Lane reported from New Orleans, David Montgomery from Morgan City, La., and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Adeel Hassan from New York.