Hurricane Barry has strengthened slightly, with maximum sustained wind speeds at 75 mph, and gusts even higher. The center of the hurricane was about 40 miles south of Lafayette, swirling above Marsh Island, an uninhabited island off the coast, as of about 10:30 a.m.
The storm is moving northwest at 6 mph, and forecasters predicted it would continue through central Louisiana on Saturday night.
Wind speeds are not what is troubling much of the region. Experts predict possible rains of up to 25 inches in parts of southern Louisiana and coastal Mississippi, and the slow-moving storm could create big flooding risks in inland areas like greater Baton Rouge. Officials issued mandatory evacuation orders in communities along the coast, including parts of Plaquemines, Jefferson and Lafourche Parishes.
More than 95,000 people were without power in Louisiana as of about noon Saturday, according to the state’s largest energy companies.
Entergy Louisiana reported that about 75,000 of its customers had been affected by power failures, mostly in the southern parts of the state. Two other power companies reported a combined 20,000 customers affected.
All morning flights in and out of the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport were canceled Saturday. Several major airlines, including Delta, Southwest and Spirit, canceled flights for the whole day, and others, including American, canceled all outbound flights.
Barry has made a shift west.
Forecasters had predicted that Barry would run ashore near Morgan City, about 20 miles from the coast. But David Naquin, homeland security director for St. Mary Parish, which includes Morgan City, said the latest reports indicated that the storm had shifted.
“It’s going to push a little bit further west,” he said.
This did not bring him any relief. “Every time it moves west, it’s actually worse for us,” Naquin said. “We get the worst side of the storm. It just puts us in the bull’s-eye of all the rain.”
But despite strong winds and increasing rain, Mayor Frank Grizzaffi of Morgan City was cautiously optimistic late Saturday morning. “Things are pretty good here,” he said. “For the most part, we’re holding up.”
The city’s biggest concern for the moment was a near-citywide power outage caused by intensifying winds that left streets and yards littered with shattered tree limbs. There have been no reports of injuries, the mayor said.
Grizzaffi had issued a voluntary evacuation order before the storm but most of Morgan City’s 12,000 residents were opting to stay put. “I would have to say that 90% of our population is still here,” he said.
The U.S. Coast Guard rescued a dozen people by helicopter early Saturday from a coastal island in southeastern Louisiana outside the area’s flood protection system, said Mart Black, a spokesman for the Terrebonne Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Only about two dozen people live on Isle de Jean Charles, Black said. The lone road into the island flooded, trapping the residents who had stayed there. A voluntary evacuation order had been issued earlier for Isle de Jean Charles, as well as other areas unprotected by the levee system.
Black, who also serves as the parish’s coastal restoration director, said he was uncertain if other residents remained on the island, but believed that all “who wanted to be rescued” were taken away by helicopter. He did not know whether anyone had to be hospitalized.
Isle de Jean Charles, populated in part by Native American tribes whose families have been there for generations, has often been written about as a harbinger to climate change’s impact on coastal communities. The island has lost 98% of its land over the last 60 years. It sits about 2 miles south of the 14-foot levee that protects most of the parish.
The rescue effort remains active, said Petty Officer Lexie Preston, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard, and more calls for help are coming from Isle de Jean Charles.
A levee has overtopped in Plaquemines Parish.
A levee has overtopped on Highway 23 in Plaquemines Parish south of New Orleans, a parish spokeswoman confirmed Saturday morning.
The levee is in the Myrtle Grove and Point Celeste communities on a spit of southeast Louisiana stretching into the Gulf. The spokeswoman, Jade Duplessis, said that the levee was not breached, but that water from back channels close to the Mississippi River had overtopped it.
“These areas in which we’re seeing this overtopping, this was anticipated,” Duplessis said. “We’re prepared for this.”
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.
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 workforce 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% who were available at this point in 2018, and from 55% 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.”
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.
Those floodwaters have fed the Mississippi River, keeping it at flood stage at many points. The Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carre spillway above New Orleans twice in one season for the first time since it was built in 1931.