Katrina on Its Mind, New Orleans Keeps an Anxious Eye on Tropical Storm Barry

NEW ORLEANS — 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, Mr. Thomas’s eyes are on a different front: the fortresslike levees along the already engorged Mississippi River. Things seemed to be under control, he said, and the official statements were reassuring. But that seemed the case in 2005, too.

“I don’t want to see anybody go through that again,” he said.

The trauma of levee failures from Katrina remained thick in the minds of residents as they scrambled to stock food, fill sandbags and pump their cars and generators full of gas in preparation for what is likely to be one of the biggest tests of the city’s storm infrastructure since Hurricane Katrina devastated the region 14 summers ago. That storm exposed major flaws in the flood defenses when its waters overtopped and breached numerous levees, leaving hundreds dead and flooding four-fifths of the city.

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CreditDavid J. Phillip/Associated Press
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CreditBryan Thomas for The New York Times

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 river, which is expected to swell to historic highs on 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, adding that he expected widespread power losses and some search-and-rescue missions. A “huge portion of southern Louisiana” is at risk, he said.

Mr. 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. In New Orleans, the aging pumps have proved vulnerable to break downs and power failures in recent years.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans urged people to shelter in their homes beginning on Friday night. She said the city was breaking from its traditional practice of handing out sandbags during severe weather so that sand would not clog storm drains.

The intense rains that are expected this weekend, and the deluges causing the Midwestern floods that have engorged the Mississippi, are consistent with the effects of climate change, in which a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture and can release it in thrashing downpours.

Ghassan Korban, the executive director of New Orleans’s Sewerage and Water Board, which runs the city’s water pumps, cautioned on Friday that the city “could have a repeat” of the widespread flooding seen earlier in the week, when a strong storm on Wednesday dumped up to nine inches of rain in some neighborhoods, temporarily turning streets all over town into shallow rivers.

Beyond the rain, officials with the Army Corps of Engineers will be closely watching how high the storm surge pushes up the Mississippi River. 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. Forecasters projected late Friday that the river would crest at about 17 feet, lower than the 19 feet projected earlier.

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CreditJohnny Milano for The New York Times

Outside a baseball field in Mid-City, among the neighborhoods most consistently inundated by flooding during heavy rains in recent years, volunteers with a neighborhood bar shoveled sand into bags and handed them out.

Within three hours, all of the bags had been picked up by nervous residents like Monique Hodges and her 9-year-old son, Christian, who planned to stack them in front of their home’s doors. Ms. Hodges wasn’t sure the sandbags would help if the city began to flood, but she didn’t want to just sit at home.

“You have to make yourself feel like you’re doing something in preparation,” she said.

Mario Perez, who shares a double shotgun house in Mid-City with his daughter and her children, hacked at tree branches on Friday. He said he hoped the trimming would prevent his home from losing power for too long when high winds started rattling trees.

Mr. Perez rode out Katrina in 2005, and said he wasn’t too worried about Barry. Water rose about a foot and a half up his front porch this week, but it didn’t get inside. He expected some flooding, but said he planned to stay in his house to keep an eye on things.

“It’s hard, but what can you do?” Mr. Perez said.

On Bourbon Street, tourists still milled about as storefront sentries shouted out, “Hurricane specials here!” But there seemed slightly less of the “let the good times roll” attitude that characterizes the French Quarter.

“I wanted to turn back,” said Tammy Huff, who was visiting New Orleans from Georgia with her sister and their combined six children. “I just don’t want to get caught in the flood.”

That sense of concern was shared by Jill Odom, a bartender at Johnny White’s Bar on Bourbon Street, which was set to close earlier than usual to usher employees home before the rain began in earnest.

“It looks like a lot of business owners aren’t taking it as lightly as they have in the past,” said Ms. Odom, who moved to New Orleans in 2006. “I think it’s because of the flooding. The city has not been able to keep us dry.”

Forecasters predicted that Barry would run ashore near Morgan City, a small town about 20 miles from the southern coast of Louisiana where residents said they had been lucky to elude recent hurricanes, including Katrina.

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CreditBryan Thomas for The New York Times

“We’ve been dodging the bullet for the last 10 years,” Mayor Frank Grizzaffi said. “Every time a hurricane comes up, it’s somewhere near Morgan City. This time, I think we’re finally going to get it.”

The working-class oil hub city of 12,000 — and the site of the state’s annual Shrimp and Petroleum Festival — has prepared for at least five hurricanes in the last two decades, but has come out largely unscathed, save for some power failures.

Brock Long, who served as the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency until March, said the slow pace of the storm meant communities like Morgan City could be slammed by torrential rain.

“When I see a storm like Barry, I grow concerned that because hurricanes are classified by wind intensity, that’s what people think is the most dangerous part of this storm,” said Mr. Long, who is now the executive chairman of Hagerty Consulting, an emergency management firm. “It’s not that the wind is going to blow their houses down. This is a water-based event.”

About 70 miles southwest of New Orleans, Morgan City is almost an island, surrounded by lakes, rivers, marshes and not much else. “We have 20 miles of coastline before the Gulf, so that buffers us a little bit,” Mr. Grizzaffi said, adding, “But what we’re concerned about is the rain.” The forecasters predicted up to 18 inches for the city by Sunday morning.

Like New Orleans, Morgan City has pumping stations that remove water from the city. After the first five inches have fallen, they can handle about one inch per hour. When the rain comes quickly, “our pumps play a catch-up game,” Mr. Grizzaffi said.

He and other city officials handed out sandbags to residents, many of whom keep them on hand each hurricane season.

Tim Matte, the executive director of the St. Mary levee district, which includes Morgan City, said his biggest concern was that a storm surge could push water away from the 20-foot federal levees to less protected areas, where city-owned levees stand at only about 12 feet high.

“There will be street flooding,” said Mr. Matte, who has lived in Morgan City since he was in the first grade. “There will be a limited ability to move about the city these next couple of days.”

“A lot of these businesses have second-story offices because of that reason,” he said.

By noon on Friday, a wall of darkening clouds had nudged aside the bright morning sunlight, delivering an increasingly strong breeze and the first light drops of rain. At a Walmart on the outskirts of Morgan City, shoppers stocked up on essentials while also professing a nonchalance honed by years of encounters with past Gulf Coast storms.

“Same old stuff,” said Matt Dalton, 53, an electrical worker. “We always get them. It’s no big deal.”

Store shelves had been picked clean, with a run on flashlights a clear signal that many shoppers were preparing for power failures. Many were also cruising the aisles with cartons of bottled water.

Jennifer Blanchard, 39, who has a 4-year-old son, said she came to the discount store to pick up a “a few last minute things,” including batteries and nonperishable snacks.

She had been through a few storms before: Gustav, Rita and Katrina. She was a child when Hurricane Andrew, the last hurricane to hit Morgan City hard, swept through in 1992, destroying her mother’s mobile home. Asked if she had fears about Barry, she responded: “Not any more than others we’ve been through.”

Emily Lane and Beau Evans reported from New Orleans and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and John Schwartz from New York. Dave Montgomery contributed reporting from Morgan City, La., and Campbell Robertson from Pittsburgh.

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