Karen weakens, turn to northeast expected

Tropical Storm Karen continued chugging toward the northern Gulf Coast on Saturday, with forecasters predicting rain, potential flooding and a decrease in speed later in the day.

The National Hurricane Center reported early Saturday that Karen’s maximum sustained winds had dropped to 40 mph, making it a weak tropical storm. It was moving north at 10 mph, and center forecasters said in their advisory that they expect Karen to decrease in speed later Saturday and turn toward the northeast.

A tropical storm watch covers the New Orleans area and a stretch from east of the Pearl River’s mouth to Indian Pass, Fla.

A tropical storm warning is in effect from Morgan City to the mouth of the Pearl River, which forms part of the border between Louisiana and Mississippi.

At the hurricane center in Miami, forecasters said the storm no longer had a chance of strengthening into a hurricane.

New Orleans and the surrounding region spent Friday watching anxiously as Tropical Storm Karen approached the Gulf Coast, encouraged to see the storm lose some of its strength but on alert for a more westerly track that could bring flooding to coastal communities.

By late afternoon, National Weather Service officials were predicting that Karen would pass over the mouth of the Mississippi River late Saturday, heading east toward Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

In the most threatened areas, outside of the federal levee system, officials turned voluntary evacuation orders into mandatory evacuation orders.

And in New Orleans proper, officials gathered reporters at City Hall to make familiar pleas for reason and common sense, asking residents to prepare for power outages, avoid driving through standing water and stay out of Lake Pontchartrain.

“We almost made it through the entire hurricane season without having a threat like this,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at a midafternoon news conference. “But it is what it is, and we’ve been through this before.”

Indeed, until this week it had looked as if New Orleans would pass through the most dangerous months of the year for hurricanes without the familiar rituals and precautions that come with watching a storm sweep through the Gulf.

Instead, the mayor and other officials found themselves again briefing reporters on preparations for a potential emergency, predicting that New Orleans would be spared any major damage but urging readiness nevertheless.

Landrieu said he had been briefed by the National Weather Service, which has the region on a tropical storm watch, expecting as much as 5 inches of rain through Sunday and sustained winds in the metro area of 25 mph to 35 mph.

The mayor said the roughly 900 to 950 New Orleans residents living outside the federal levee system — in Venetian Isles, Lake Catherine, Fort Pike and Irish Bayou — could see as much as 3 feet of water around their homes because of encroaching tides, though water is not expected to rise high enough to flood raised homes.

Inside the levees, residents could expect backed-up storm drains and downed power lines, officials warned. Barriers had been positioned for deployment in flooded areas. And the city’s 311 hotline was prepared to remain open 24 hours a day beginning Saturday morning in order to take reports of flooding or damage.

The Sewerage & Water Board said it had tested its 24 pumping stations and confirmed they are ready to begin draining water out of the city at the rate of one inch of water in the first hour and half an inch per hour after that.

Entergy New Orleans CEO Charles Rice said the company has more than 1,000 workers in the area ready to begin restoring power should the storm cut electrical lines, with additional teams ready to move in from elsewhere.

Despite the storm’s weakening, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Saturday closed the Bayou Segnette sector gate, located in Westwego.

A few hours later, the Corps also closed the Seabrook Floodgate Complex. That complex is located at the north end of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, also known locally as the Industrial Canal, just south of Lake Pontchartrain and the Sen. Ted Hickey Bridge.

However, many services were expected to continue as normal. City officials said they did not anticipate disruptions at Louis Armstrong International Airport or on the city’s streetcar lines, although flights could be threatened if winds get up around 40 mph and buses could replace streetcars at 25 mph to 35 mph. Landrieu said garbage pickup will continue as usual through the weekend, though perhaps not on badly flooded streets.

As of Friday afternoon, Gentilly Fest, the Gretna Heritage Festival, Art for Arts’ Sake and the Tulane University football game against North Texas all were still on.

And given that weather officials still expect the brunt of Karen’s wind and rain to bypass the city, scattered power outages could prove to be the most visible — and aggravating — result of the storm.

Asked whether outages might keep some residents from watching the Saints game on Sunday against the Chicago Bears, the mayor deftly sidestepped the question.

“If the current track holds,” he said, “the Saints are going to beat the Bears.”

In low-lying communities outside of the $14.5 billion hurricane protection system that swaddles much of Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes, the mood turned more serious on Friday.

Plaquemines Parish changed its mandatory evacuation order to voluntary evacuation Saturday, a spokeswoman said, and a dusk-to-dawn curfew is in effect on the eastbank, except for residents returning home from evacuations.

David Carmardelle, the mayor of Grand Isle, also ordered residents to leave the exposed coastal community and announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Jefferson Parish President John Young said Grand Isle residents could shelter at the Raceland Recreation Center.

Young warned that Jean Lafitte, Crown Point and Barataria will also be vulnerable to a storm surge as Karen piles water against the coast on her way east. But even in those areas, Young said, officials expect the surge to be well below 5 feet, the point at which significant flooding would occur.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the Seabrook Floodgate Complex due to the impacts from Tropical Storm Karen. The Seabrook Floodgate Complex is located at the north end of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, also known locally as the Industrial Canal, just south of Lake Pontchartrain and the Senator Ted Hickey Bridge.

In following operating procedures for key structures of the Greater New Orleans Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System, the closure of the gates at Seabrook follows the closing of the gates at the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal-Lake Borgne Surge Barrier earlier today.

The Seabrook Floodgate Complex is located at the north end of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (IHNC; also known locally as the Industrial Canal) just south of Lake Pontchartrain and the Senator Ted Hickey Bridge.