Thousands of Gulf Coast residents broke out sandbags or fled to higher ground Thursday as Tropical Storm Barry threatened to turn into the first hurricane of the season and blow ashore with torrential rains that could bring widespread damage.
According to the National Hurricane Center, the eye of the possible hurricane is expected to impact the Louisiana coast with heavy pockets of rain affecting Southeast Texas late Friday night. Barry could have winds of about 75 mph (120 kph), just barely over the 74 mph threshold for a hurricane, when it comes ashore, making it a Category 1 storm, forecasters said.
But it is expected to bring more than a foot and a half (0.5 meters) of rain in potentially ruinous downpours that could go on for hours as the storm passes through the metropolitan area of nearly 1.3 million people and pushes slowly inland.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who declared an emergency earlier in the week as the storm brewed in the Gulf of Mexico, warned that the storm's blow could form a dangerous combination with the already-high Mississippi River, which has been swelled by heavy rain and snowmelt upriver this spring.
"There are three ways that Louisiana can flood: storm surge, high rivers and rain," Edwards said. "We're going to have all three."
He said authorities do not expect the Mississippi River to spill over its levees — something that has never happened in New Orleans' modern history — but cautioned that a change in the storm's direction or intensity could alter that.
As of late Thursday afternoon, Barry was about 90 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi, with winds around 40 mph (65 kph). A hurricane warning was posted for a 100-mile stretch of Louisiana coastline just below Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
The National Hurricane Center said as much as 20 inches (50 centimeters) of rain could fall in parts of eastern Louisiana, including Baton Rouge, and the entire region could get as much as 10 inches (25 centimeters). The Huntsville area is projected to get between one to two inches.
Meteorologist Benjamin Schott said the chief concern is not the wind: "Rainfall and flooding is going to be the No. 1 threat with this storm."
Hurricane Katrina caused catastrophic flooding in New Orleans in 2005 and was blamed altogether for more than 1,800 deaths in Louisiana and other states, by some estimates.
In its aftermath, the Army Corps of Engineers began a multibillion-dollar hurricane-protection system that isn't complete. The work included repairs and improvements to some 350 miles (560 kilometers) of levees and more than 70 pump stations that are used to remove floodwaters.
The National Weather Service said it expects the Mississippi to rise to 19 feet (5.8 meters) by Saturday morning at a key gauge in the New Orleans area, which is protected by levees 20 to 25 feet (6 to 7.6 meters) high.
Kevin McGill and Rebecca Santana with the Associated Press contributed to this report