In New Orleans, residents were waiting to see whether their complex pump-and-levee protection system would hold in the storm.
The city, which is largely below sea level, relies on dozens of massive drainage pumps to flush water out of its streets, and on miles of federal levees to block storm surges. But the aging pumps have proved vulnerable to breakdowns and power losses in recent years, while spring flooding has pushed the river higher over the last several months, nearly to the top of the levees.
FEMA was already stretched thin before Barry hit.
Three years of crushing natural disasters have dwindled the ranks of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, potentially straining its ability to help victims of the storm.
Fewer than a quarter of the 13,654 people in FEMA’s trained disaster work force are available to assist with Barry or indeed any other emergency, agency documents show, because the rest are deployed elsewhere or otherwise unavailable. That is down from the 34 percent who were available at this point in 2018, and from 55 percent two years ago.
“I’m worried,” said Elizabeth A. Zimmerman, who ran FEMA’s disaster operations during the Obama administration. “That’s of concern, to make sure that there are enough people to respond.”
[Read more here about the concerns over short-staffing at FEMA.]
The extreme rain is consistent with climate change research.
The Gulf Coast has always had hurricanes, of course. But the extreme rain associated with this storm, projected to be 10 to 20 inches or even more, fits into emerging research suggesting that climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of storms with heavy rainfall.
A warming atmosphere can hold more moisture, dumping it out in form of heavy downpours — a phenomenon seen not just in storms like Barry, but in the record floods across much of the Midwest this year.