Bill Smith spent early Saturday morning trying to restock the New Orleans Food Co-op, where shelves were cleared yesterday by shoppers trying to outlast Hurricane Nate.
A few groused about trying to beat a mandatory citywide curfew that will begin at 7 p.m. and last until Sunday morning or “until the risk has passed.” Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced that the New Orleans Police Department will enforce the curfew for anyone who is not deemed essential emergency personnel or people traveling to and from work.
The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority also suspended service for buses and ferries from 7 p.m. Saturday until the curfew is lifted.
Nate strengthened on Friday and early Saturday as it traveled over warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico. National Hurricane Center forecasts predicted that it would be a Category 2 storm by the time it hit the Gulf Coast on Saturday night.
As a nice breeze started to blow across New Orleans early Saturday afternoon, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that early voting would be suspended in St. Bernard, Plaquemines and Orleans at 3 p.m. because of Nate. He urged locals to hunker down by that time, saying the storm was expected to make landfall near the mouth of the Mississippi River about four hours later.
The storm’s projected path continues to be a bit east of New Orleans, giving locals hope that the city will get only a glancing blow.
But higher winds were becoming a heightened concern as the storm approached. Shoppers in local stores seemed intent on getting in and out quickly, grabbing smaller, last-minute items like bananas, milk and booze – “the sustenance I need,” one man said, describing the work he had ahead of him: stowing bicycles and patio plants indoors, out of the reach of winds that could reach 105 miles per hour by the time the storm makes landfall, according to the National Hurricane Center.
At the Co-op, Smith had heard that Nate had beefed up in the Gulf. He expected that New Orleans would face some serious conditions – but briefly. “We’ll get one day of rain. One day of wind. The power will definitely be out. Some streets will have water. That’s about it. Then Nate will dissipate and move on to another state.”
Still, people who spoke to The Advocate seemed more concerned about a relatively weak tropical storm than they might have been in the past. Some said that Hurricane Katrina had been so serious that they would never take a storm lightly again. Some said hurricane parties, where people drank through the night and showed disdain for Mother Nature, now seem like part of a bygone era.
Others wondered whether the Sewerage & Water Board’s recent troubles or the busy nature of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season played a role in their unease. Some also mentioned Hurricane Isaac, the slow-moving 2012 hurricane that left parts of the city without electricity and mired in humidity for what seemed like an eternity. City officials have told people to prepare for what could be week-long power outages from Nate.
On Saturday, diligent residents rose early and began to park cars on neutral grounds around town as soon as the city allowed it at 8 a.m., when the rain that fell was still so light and misty that windshield wipers weren’t necessary. Messages about which gas stations had run out of fuel began to circulate on Friday night, a full day before landfall.
While New Orleanians have always been able to shift into a serious storm mode for a while, this felt a little different.
“We used to just tape up the windows when a storm was coming,” said Dwayne Boudreaux, 32, a New Orleans native who owns the iconic Circle Food Store, which took on water in Katrina and again in August’s freak rainstorm. “But since Katrina, everyone is always a little bit paranoid or uneasy. And this year, there have been so many storms that we’re all on edge.”
Landrieu made clear at a press briefing on Friday that New Orleanians should stay inside, rather than risk being caught in high winds and certain street flooding.
As the Flood Protection Authority prepared on Saturday to close its nearly 200 floodgates in Jefferson, Orleans and St. Bernard, residents of Lake Catherine, Venetian Isles and Irish Bayou in New Orleans packed up for a mandatory evacuation ordered by Landrieu because of fears of storm surge. Low-lying Louisiana coastal areas were also evacuating. Starting at 6 p.m. on Saturday, the city will also be shutting down underpasses that routinely flood.
Landrieu also warned that, though the pumping system had been improved, with 109 of 120 pumps operational and all of them fully staffed, it would not be able to handle several inches of precipitation an hour, if Nate brought torrential rains. Predictions are for between 3 and 6 inches of rain, but the intensity of the rain remains unknown.
“There will be water in the streets,” Landrieu said, as reporters pelted him with questions about the drainage system. The mayor has appointed a temporary team to oversee the system on an interim basis; the group is analyzing it to see how much it is able to drain when all of its current parts are fixed. “The pumping system in New Orleans is as old as Calvin Coolidge,” he said a few times, stressing that it was powerful, but not perfect and that it reduced risk, but didn’t eliminate it.
Edwards, the governor, said he was "not overly concerned" Saturday afternoon about the city's compromised pump stations.
On Friday, Boudreaux ordered two extra pallets of water to make sure that his neighbors were stocked up. He planned to keep the store open until 6 or 6:30 p.m., he said, to allow customers time to get home before the curfew.
Since the store flooded badly during the Aug. 5th rainstorm, Boudreaux was mostly worried about how much intense rainfall Nate would bring. “I’m just hoping the pumps stay working and that they can keep up,” he said. “I’m not worried about the wind.”
The Circle Food building, which dates to 1853, wasn’t going anywhere, Boudreaux said. “So I’m not worried about the structure at all. I’m worried about the drainage.”