(Written by Emily Lane, Beau Evans and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs)
Water can come at you from multiple angles in a city surrounded by it. Joseph Thomas, 51, remembers how it came into his neighborhood last time.
“We would not be talking about Katrina had the levees not broke,” he said, explaining that the disaster in 2005 happened because faulty levees and flood walls failed to hold back Hurricane Katrina’s surge coming in from the Gulf of Mexico.
With Tropical Storm Barry expected to make landfall as a Category 1 hurricane early Saturday morning in south Louisiana, residents scrambled in preparation for what is likely to be one of the biggest tests of the city’s storm infrastructure since Katrina exposed major flaws in its flood defenses 14 summers ago.
Now, with some $20 billion in federal, state and local money spent on upgrading the city’s storm defenses and drainage, the nervous attention is on the levees along the Mississippi River, which is expected to swell to historic highs Saturday, and on the dozens of massive pumps that the city relies on to flush water out of its streets.
“This is the first time in history a hurricane will strike Louisiana while the Mississippi River is in flood stage,” Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana said Friday. A “huge portion of southern Louisiana” is at risk, he said.
Edwards activated 3,000 members of the National Guard, 1,100 of whom were deployed to New Orleans, where there was a storm surge warning. Flood warnings were in effect for Lafayette and Baton Rouge.
Rain, said city and state officials, will be the biggest threat from Barry. Up to 20 inches could fall in some places. Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans urged people to shelter in their homes beginning on Friday night.
Ghassan Korban, executive director of New Orleans’ Sewerage and Water Board, cautioned Friday that the city “could have a repeat” of the widespread flooding seen earlier in the week, when a strong storm Wednesday dumped up to 9 inches of rain in some neighborhoods.
Beyond the rain, officials with the Army Corps of Engineers will be closely watching the storm surge. 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 levees. But a Corps spokesman said the river was not projected to rise higher than 19 feet.