Hurricane Sally's eastward shift Monday looked to spare much of the Baton Rouge region from the worst of the storm's impact, though officials weren't taking any chances and preparations continued for what could be excessive rain and storm surges, particularly along the tidal lakes.
Forecasters with the National Hurricane Center warned Monday that Sally could become a major hurricane, with top winds of 110 mph, just under Category 3 strength, before weakening slightly during a 1 a.m. Wednesday landfall near Pascagoula, Miss.
The National Weather Service on Monday extended a storm surge warning for Ascension, Tangipahoa and Livingston, as well as a flash flood watch and hurricane warning for parishes east of East Baton Rouge Parish.
Schools in Tangipahoa, Livingston and Assumption are closed Tuesday, and in Ascension, classes will be held remotely.
Sally underwent rapid intensification, maturing from a tropical storm with winds of only 65 mph at 10 a.m. Monday to a hurricane with winds of 90 mph by 11:30 a.m. The storm was expected to increase to Category 2 strength, with winds of at least 105 mph, by the time its center passes just east of the mouth of the Mississippi River at 7 a.m. Tuesday, and to remain at that intensity 12 hours later, when it is expected to be east of Belle Chasse in Chandeleur Sound.
This was the second time a storm has quickly gained strength over warm Gulf waters this year. On Aug. 26, Hurricane Laura rapidly intensified in a matter of a few hours, with wind speeds eventually increasing to 150 mph at landfall in Cameron Parish the next day.
Though Sally's easterly shift lessened the risk of heavy rain and wind for the Baton Rouge region, the lower parts of Ascension, Livingston and Tangipahoa still face some risk from expected storm surge of 4 to 6 feet in Lake Maurepas, the National Hurricane Center said.
The National Weather Service office in Slidell said areas west of Interstate 55 in Tangipahoa and St. John the Baptist parishes will see between 3 and 7 inches of rain as Sally heads inland. The National Hurricane Center said Ascension and neighboring St. James and Livingston parishes can expect around 2 inches over the next five days.
Officials in Ascension began pumping down waterways Sunday to prepare for runoff from heavy rains. By Monday, stream gauges in the New River Canal and in Bayou Francois and Black Bayou near Gonzales showed water levels had dropped about 2 feet.
Officials also opened up the 265-acre Lamar-Dixon Expo Center near Gonzales for livestock in need of sheltering. The facility, which hosts horse and cattle shows throughout the year, has several livestock barns.
Tangipahoa Parish President Robby Miller issued a voluntary evacuation for the area's low-lying neighborhoods on Sunday. He breathed a sigh of relief Monday after a previous projection that sent the storm up Interstate 55 shifted east.
Editor's note: Staff writers Mark Schleifstein, David Mitchell, Youssef Rddad and Emma Kennedy contributed to this report.