Officials throughout the New Orleans metro area began preparing Thursday for the first storm this hurricane season to take aim at the Gulf Coast, bracing for a stretch of rain and wind that national weather officials expect to come ashore late Friday and pass east of the city.
As of late Thursday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center expected Tropical Storm Karen to strengthen into a hurricane sometime Friday but weaken before reaching shore, bringing winds of 40 mph to 60 mph in coastal areas and 25mph to 35 mph in New Orleans and the River Parishes.
Officials were keeping a close eye on the storm’s trajectory. After predicting a more easterly course, the National Hurricane Center updated its forecast at 4 p.m. to show the storm making landfall at the mouth of the Mississippi River before heading toward Alabama.
Barry Keim, Louisiana’s state climatologist, said Karen’s track will depend on the arrival of an approaching cold front that should push the storm east. But if the front arrives late, the storm could continue north for longer than expected before veering off.
Officials anticipated nothing like Hurricane Isaac, a storm that crept ashore last year and hovered over the city for days, flooding streets, toppling power lines and causing billions of dollars in damage.
But they warned residents to prepare for possible street flooding and power outages Saturday, even if a widespread evacuation appeared out of the question. Low-lying areas outside of the federal levee system braced for the possibility of rising water.
“If our citizens would like to leave and go see grandma, that’s fine with us,” said Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed, New Orleans’ deputy mayor for public safety, outside City Hall. “But what we need to do is prepare for a tropical storm or Category 1” hurricane.
Local, state and federal officials began to do just that.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway barge gate, sealing off a 1.8-mile concrete barrier designed to block storm surge from Lake Borgne from pressing in on the levees that protect New Orleans East, the 9th Ward and Gentilly.
In Washington, the Obama administration said that federal workers put on furlough because of the government shutdown would be recalled as needed to respond to events on the Gulf Coast.
Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency, putting state agencies on alert and activating 650 Louisiana National Guardsman.
The Saints prepared to leave town early for their game Sunday against the Chicago Bears.
As always, the most dire warnings came for residents and businesses outside of the federal levee system, where even relatively mild storms can often push enough water ashore to cause flooding.
Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser declared a state of emergency Thursday and said all recreation events have been canceled for the weekend.
He said, “All pump stations are operational and we have crews on standby.”
On the west bank of Jefferson Parish, officials started closing some of the floodgates along the Harvey Canal and said all pumping stations would be fully manned until the threat had passed.
Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle declared an emergency as well and ordered a voluntary evacuation, while Jean Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner said he was waiting to see which path the storm would take.
“If it turns to the east like it’s supposed to, we might get a foot or two of tidal surge, and we can handle that,” Kerner said. But, he added that if it does not, “it’ll be like a war zone around here.”
“I am hoping and praying that doesn’t happen.”
Further inland, officials remained watchful but optimistic. Mandeville called off its October Feast celebration, but the St. Tammany Parish Fair was still on for the weekend as of Thursday afternoon, as was the Gretna Heritage Festival.
The St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office said it was taking inventory of extra food, water and gasoline, leaving any decision about extra patrols until Friday. And Slidell moved equipment into place and prepared Hesco baskets to prevent flooding on U.S. 11, if needed.
In New Orleans, tucked behind a newly strengthened complex of gates and levees, officials told residents to be prepared for power outages and street flooding from as much as 2 to 5 inches of rain.
“We’re ready,” Sneed said, “We’re asking our citizens to be ready also.”
For now, preparations amount to conversations with public safety officials and city department heads to make sure contingency plans are in place and essential personnel have been identified and know what their jobs will be. He said the city will open its emergency operations center in City Hall sometime Friday.
Sneed said he has spoken with officials at Entergy, who were widely criticized after Hurricane Isaac for the slow pace that power came back on in the storm’s wake. He expected to meet with them again on Friday morning to go over plans in more detail.
The company released a statement Thursday saying it had line crews and contractors already in place to begin restoring service in the case of outages. But a spokeswoman could not yet provide more details about the company’s plans.
Amy Wold, Danny Monteverde and Faimon A. Roberts III contributed reporting.