Local and state officials are closely watching what could become a tropical depression headed toward southeast Louisiana and are asking residents to prepare for significant rainfall later this week despite the somewhat uncertain impacts of the system.
The National Weather Service issued a tropical storm warning for the central Gulf Coast starting at 4 p.m. Sunday, which means tropical storm conditions are forecast within 48 hours, including winds between 39 and 73 mph.
The main threat for the Baton Rouge area appears to be flooding as the system is now projected to dump heavy rain on the region Tuesday night into Wednesday, according the National Weather Service in Slidell. Experts are also concerned because recent rainy weather over the past several days has left the ground saturated in some areas, increasing the risk of flooding.
Tropical Storm Gordon is expected to gain strength as it moves northwest, becoming a tropical depression by Monday morning and passing over the Florida Keys that afternoon before entering the Gulf of Mexico and continuing to strengthen, according to the National Hurricane Center. It could become a tropical storm, which would be named Gordon, before making landfall along the central Gulf Coast the following day.
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The current tropical storm watch extends from the Alabama–Florida border to Morgan City. In addition to East and West Baton Rouge parishes, the watch area includes Iberville, Livingston, the Florida parishes and the River parishes between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The Acadiana region is not included in that watch area but will likely receive heavy rainfall that could cause some threat of flooding, according to the National Weather Service in Lake Charles.
Forecasts for the Baton Rouge metro area show potential rainfall of 4 to 7 inches over the course of the upcoming week between Monday night and Thursday. The Lafayette area is similarly projected to receive around 5 inches within the next several days.
"We've had a rainy period leading up to this system. That's not a good thing and it's something that we factor in when issuing local warnings," said Fred Zeigler, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Slidell. "The ground is a little saturated and excessive rain could cause some flooding issues."
Zeigler added that local rivers — which flooded spectacularly in 2016 — are "in OK shape" and not a major source of alarm right now given their current levels. He said forecasters are watching known trouble spots and could start issuing flash flood watches and warnings within 36 hours of a projected event, in this case potentially starting Monday afternoon or evening.
The meteorologist also said he is cautious about comparing one weather event to another and would not want to suggest that the current tropical system is at all similar to the 2016 floods that devastated the Baton Rouge region and parts of Acadiana.
"Every storm is different and has its own fingerprint," he said. "But the main threat here is the heavy rain and that's what we want the public to be aware of and plan accordingly. … We don't want people to think this is no big deal."
The current tropical storm watch could be upgraded to a warning if forecasters predict tropical storm conditions within 24 hours. The rain and wind projections could also increase or decrease as meteorologists continue to monitor the system's progress into the Gulf.
But in the meantime, state and local officials are recommending that residents start making plans in case evacuations become necessary.
The Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness announced Sunday it had activated its Crisis Management Team to receive requests from individual parishes asking for state assistance to boost their emergency response resources. Spokesman Mike Steele said the agency had not received any requests as of Sunday evening, but he expects some could arrive in coming days.
Steele said he and others are hoping people won't be too distracted by the Labor Day holiday weekend to start thinking ahead.
"We have to ramp up and start having those conversations now because once (the system) tracks into the Gulf, there's not much time left to prepare," he said. "It's been several years since we've had a significant tropical threat … so there's always concern that people will get complacent."
Steele said his biggest recommendation is that residents pay attention to the potential impacts for their specific area, not simply the overall size and strength of the storm. He also pointed out that September is National Preparedness Month — a designation in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks that happened to fall in the midst of hurricane season.
Officials in East Baton Rouge Parish have been checking drainage infrastructure and are offering sand and sandbags to residents at some usual pickup locations, including BREC Doyles Bayou Park, BREC Alsen Park, BREC Lovett Road Park, BREC Flannery Park and St. George Fire Headquarters. Additional locations will be added Monday, according to a news release Sunday evening from the mayor's office.
The National Hurricane Center expects southeast Louisiana -- including the New Orleans and Baton Rouge areas -- to feel direct impacts this we…
Clay Rives, director of the Mayor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said he hopes people take advantage of those resources before it's too late. But he said the parish's forecasted rainfall levels don't appear overwhelming at this point.
Mark Harrell, Rives' counterpart in Livingston Parish, also said officials are making sandbags available at fire stations throughout the parish and are planning to ramp up those efforts on Monday while continuing to monitor forecasts and water levels.
"I would like for people to look back and prepare a little bit — have your medicine ready, have fuel in your vehicles, have clothes in case you need them. Be prepared to grab your stuff and move to a shelter," he said. "People get a little lax and think they'll just wait a little longer. … But I'm thinking that after what everyone suffered in 2016, they may be a little bit quicker to move out of harm's way this time around."