Rain, strong winds forecast

Downtown New Orleans is visible behind billowing smoke from a marsh fire Thursday morning that has sent a smoky haze to Baton Rouge and farther over the past several days. Show caption
Downtown New Orleans is visible behind billowing smoke from a marsh fire Thursday morning that has sent a smoky haze to Baton Rouge and farther over the past several days.

Storm could help douse marsh fire

A tropical depression sitting off the coast of Louisiana is expected to bring rain and strong winds to Baton Rouge and much of southern Louisiana this holiday weekend and maybe even longer, according to the National Weather Service.

The Weather Service issued a tropical storm warning Thursday for coastal Louisiana.

The warning means that tropical storm conditions are expected somewhere in the area within the next 36 hours.

The likelihood that this system could turn into a tropical storm and bring large amounts of rain to the state prompted Gov. Bobby Jindal to declare a state of emergency for Louisiana on Thursday evening.

“What makes this system tricky is it’s just not going to move much,” said Shawn O’Neil, a Weather Service meteorologist. “It’s kind of a wait and see.”

O’Neil said that it was possible that the low pressure system could strengthen.

Since the tropical depression is expected to stay off the coast for some days, the system will have more time over warm water and more time to strengthen, O’Neil said.

The wind sheer over the system — which helps hamper tropical formations — was already weakening by Thursday afternoon and it was expected that those winds would continue to die down on Friday, he said.

The National Hurricane Center’s 7 p.m. Thursday forecast stated that this tropical depression is expected to move very slowly during the next five days to the northwest and then to the north and northeast — which is toward the Louisiana coastline.

Other forecasts showed the system sticking around for three to four days while still others estimated it could last up to seven days, Barry Keim, Louisiana state climatologist, said.

Until the system moves in over land, bands of rain will keep coming inland, O’Neil said.

“We’re going to be dealing with this for a few day,” O’Neil said.

Exactly where the system will go once it does start moving is also uncertain.

“This thing has no steering currents whatsoever, so the models don’t know what to do with it,” Keim said.

O’Neil said the biggest concern is flooding — coastal flooding and flooding from rainfall.

In Baton Rouge, it’s estimated that between 4 inches and 6 inches of rain will fall through Monday, Keim said.

Not only will there be rain in Baton Rouge for several days, Keim said, but the winds will pick up and are expected to be between 10 and 30 miles per hour with higher gusts.

That could mean the possibility of downed trees or power lines, Keim said. Winds were already starting to pick up Thursday evening and were expected to get stronger Friday.

Pat Santos, interim director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said even though there’s a lot of uncertainty about the system in the Gulf of Mexico, the state and parish governments were making preparations.

“What we do know is this: We could get rain and other hazards like water spouts or tornados,” Santos said.

It’s estimated that coastal parishes could experience higher than normal tides and could get as much as 10 inches to 12 inches of rain during the next five days. Several parishes have started closing certain floodgates, and sandbag stations are being set up, Santos said.

A silver lining could be that the system will bring enough rain to help extinguish a marsh fire that has been burning in eastern New Orleans for days.

“We’re hopeful that happens,” Santos said.

On Thursday morning, the Louisiana National Guard continued its effort to try to contain the fire by dousing the perimeter of it with water.

By afternoon, the Guard stopped its operation when rain showers moved into New Orleans.

Before the rain started, eight helicopters spent the morning scooping water from nearby canals and dumping it on the fire.

“We’re not trying to put flames out in the middle,” Chief Warrant Officer 5 Wiley Nugent said.

Instead, the crews were keeping the still-green border of the heavily wooded marsh area wet to keep the fire from spreading.

Each bucket load of water held 660 gallons and weighed more than 5,500 pounds, Nugent said. In a four-hour work period Tuesday, Nugent said, his crew delivered 135 bucket loads of water to the fire area.

“It looks like it’s holding, from what I can tell,” Nugent said Thursday morning.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Louisiana National Guard had dropped more than one million gallons of water in battling the fire, according to the Governor’s Office.