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Strengthening Tropical Storm Barry could dump 20 inches of rain on New Orleans, nearing levees' limits

NEW ORLEANS – Tropical Storm Barry was on track to hit the Louisiana coast early Saturday as a Category 1 hurricane, but the primary danger is not from high wind but heavy rain and a dangerous storm surge threatening low-lying coastal areas and the levees of New Orleans.

Across Louisiana, National Guard troops and rescue crews were stationed around the state with boats and high-water vehicles while utility repair crews with bucket trucks moved into position. And homeowners sandbagged their property or packed up and left.

As of 1 p.m. CDT, Barry was about 105 miles west southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River, crawling through the Gulf of Mexico at 5 mph. It was expected to shift to a northwesterly track later Friday before heading north and going ashore over the central or southeastern coast of Louisiana early Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.

Barry was packing sustained winds near 65 mph, only 9 mph shy of the hurricane designation of 74 mph. Forecasters said it was still possible Barry would remain a tropical storm when it went ashore.

Authorities said the speed and timing of Barry’s arrival is critical. “The combination of a dangerous storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters moving inland from the shoreline,” the weather service said.

If it hits at the time of high tide, the weather service said, water could swell 3 to 6 feet above ground from the Atchafalaya River to Shell Beach, 2 to 4 feet from Shell Beach to the Mississippi-Alabama border, and 2 to 4 feet at Lake Pontchartrain.

National Hurricane Center director Ken Graham said Friday that the slow-moving storm means there will be more rainfall than one that sped quickly through the region.

Heavy rain packs the biggest danger over the region through the weekend. Forecasters said up to 20 inches is expected over southeast Louisiana, including New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Alexandria, and in southwest Mississippi, with as much as 25 inches in some isolated areas.

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The weather service said the rains “are expected to lead to dangerous, life-threatening flooding over portions of the central Gulf Coast into the Lower Mississippi Valley.” 

Around New Orleans, the heavy rain and a storm surge could mean up to 3 feet of water in an already swollen Mississippi River, pushing it to 19 feet above sea level, close to the levee system’s 20-foot limit in some places.

A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, however, expressed confidence that the levee system could handle the rapid rise, even if water should spill over in some spots. 

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“We’re confident with the integrity – the levees are extremely robust and designed to handle a lot of pressure,” Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said.

Tornadoes were also a threat in southeastern Louisiana, according to AccuWeather meteorologist Dan Kottlowski. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards, warning of a “significant weather event,” said he was prepared to activate up to 3,000 personnel to deal with the storm.

President Donald Trump approved an emergency declaration for the state late Thursday to provide disaster relief. 

For residents of New Orleans, the message from authorities was to hunker down. Mayor Latoya Cantrell noted that the city only orders evacuations for Category 3 hurricane or stronger. “Therefore, sheltering in place is our strategy,” the mayor said.

In New Orleans, an early line of thunderstorms dumped as much as 7 inches of rain within a three-hour period Wednesday morning, leaving up to 4 feet of water in some streets.

City officials said the pumping system that drains streets was at full capacity. The immense amount of rain in three hours would overwhelm any system, said Sewerage and Water Board Director Ghassan Korban.

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Many residents in the Big Easy used the lull before the storm to stock up on supplies Thursday. 

At the Tchoupitoulas Walmart, which sits across the street from the Mississippi River and a concrete flood wall, residents emptied shelves of bottled water, ramen noodles and produce. 

Ruby Sterling said she lives in more elevated part of the city but admitted she was feeling “a bit panicky.”

“I don’t know if the city can hold up,” Sterling said. “But I’m hopeful.”

A few aisles up, Asia Daniels and her husband pulled case after case of bottled water into their cart. Ordinarily, floodwater only rises to the first step of their house in uptown New Orleans. Wednesday’s storms brought the water to the second. 

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  • Vehicles are stuck in floodwaters along S. Galvez Street as heavy rain falls, Wednesday, July 10, 2019, in New Orleans.1 of 15
  • Jalana Furlough carries her son Drew Furlough as Terrian Jones carries Chance Furlough on Belfast Street near Eagle Street in New Orleans after flooding from a tropical wave system in the Gulf Mexico that dumped lots of rain in Wednesday, July 10, 2019.2 of 15
  • Flooding comes up the wheels of a parked car on Belfast Street near Eagle Street in New Orleans Wednesday, July 10, 2019 after flooding from a 100-year storm from a tropical wave system in the Gulf Mexico dumped lots of rain. The wave system may form into a hurricane called Barry later in the week. 3 of 15
  • Frank Conforto Jr. walks in the parking lot of the University Medical Center with the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the background on Glavez Street in New Orleans after flooding from a storm Wednesday, July 10, 2019. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has declared a state of emergency in anticipation of tropical weather that could dump as much as 15 inches of rain in the state over the coming days.4 of 15
  • David Fox makes a call from his business on Poydras Street in New Orleans after flooding in New Orleans Wednesday, July 10, 2019. A storm swamped New Orleans streets and paralyzed rush-hour traffic Wednesday as concerns grew that even worse weather was on the way. 5 of 15
  • Rain obscures the bridge across the Mississippi River into New Orleans on Wednesday, July 10, 2019. 6 of 15
  • Eric Ehlenberger, a physician and neon artist, goes through his damaged home in New Orleans on July 10, 2019, following a storm that swamped the city and paralyzed traffic. Ehlenberger said his wife was able to crawl out safely. 7 of 15
  • St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Office inmate workers move free sandbags for residents in Chalmette, La., July 11, 2019 ahead of ahead of Tropical Storm Barry from the Gulf of Mexico.8 of 15
  • Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards talks with Army National Guard soldiers at Chalmette Refining in New Orleans on July 11, 2019. 9 of 15
  • Army National Guard soldiers put down sandbags at Chalmette Refining in New Orleans on July 11, 2019. 10 of 15
  • Devontee Alexis carries sandbags to a truck in the St. Roch neighborhood of New Orleans on July 11, 2019.  11 of 15
  • Residents fill sandbags in the St. Roch neighborhood of New Orleans on July 11, 2019. 12 of 15
  • This Satellite image provided by NASA taken by U.S. Astronaut Christina Koch on July 11, 2019 at the International Space Station, shows Tropical Storm Barry as it bears down on Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and the panhandle of Florida as it makes its way through the Gulf of Mexico.13 of 15
  • Ashley Boudreaux ties sandbags, July 12, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La., ahead of Tropical Storm Barry.  The National Weather Service in New Orleans says water is already starting to cover some low lying roads in coastal Louisiana as Barry approaches the state from the Gulf of Mexico.14 of 15
  • Vehicles make their way on I-10 as bands of rain from Tropical Storm Barry from the Gulf of Mexico move into New Orleans, La., July 12, 2019.15 of 15

Stangin and Rice reported from McLean,Va. Leigh Guidry reports for the Lafayette Daily Advertiser.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Follow USA TODAY Network’s on-the-ground coverage of Barry on Twitter.

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