A slow-moving and slowly strengthening Tropical Storm Barry crept closer to the south-central Louisiana coastline Friday, bringing with it expectations of extremely high rainfall and threats of river flooding in the Baton Rouge area — and keeping residents on pins and needles.
[Update, 10 a.m. Saturday: Barry has been upgraded to a hurricane.]
The National Weather Service is projecting 10 to 20 inches of rain for the region as Barry eventually passes through the state, with localized maximums that could reach 25 inches over the next few days.
Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel are in place in Baton Rouge and New Orleans; the Louisiana National Guard has high-wheeled vehicles and boats, and several hundred guardsmen, staged across the state for evacuations; and the state has positioned buses at staging areas in Gonzales, Lafayette and New Orleans.
Factoring in Barry's anticipated rainfall, the Amite River at Bayou Manchac is expected to reach a major flood stage of 17 feet at 7 a.m. Wednesday. That’s nearly 14 feet above the current level. Flood stage at that location is 9 feet.
The NWS office in Slidell said the Amite at Denham Springs is expected to reach moderate flood stage at 1 a.m. Tuesday, reaching a crest of 38 feet. That’s 9 feet above flood stage, but still 8.2 feet below the record when the river hit 46.2 feet in August 2016.
The Amite and Comite rivers will also rise sharply in other locations, but still remain well below 2016 levels.
Barry was expected to make landfall sometime Saturday morning between Morgan City and Vermilion Bay, and the heavier rains should reach the Baton Rouge area by midday. The bulk of the rain from Barry was expected late Friday, Saturday and at times Sunday.
"This storm is going to impact areas that have already seen historic flooding. We know it's going to further put stress on our survivors and citizens," Jeff Byard, FEMA associate administrator for the Office of Response and Recovery, said Friday.
The National Hurricane Center on Friday afternoon said Barry's center of circulation was 70 miles south-southeast of Morgan City, with winds at 65 mph, or 9 mph shy of Category 1 hurricane status. Forecasters said Barry could become 2019's first hurricane before landfall. The storm was creeping west-northwesterly at 6 mph.
"We will prepare for the worst, and be prayerful for the best," East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said Friday, perhaps summing up best the collective sentiment in not only the parish but southeast Louisiana.
FEMA has about 30 people already in place in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, in addition to the some 300 people who have been in the state to work on continued recovery efforts from past disasters. More are prepared to come to Louisiana as needed in the wake of the storm.
Byard said FEMA also has mobilized hundreds of thousands of emergency meals and liters of water to be in place as needed.
The Louisiana National Guard has prepositioned "numerous" high-wheeled vehicles and more than 3,000 guardsmen throughout south Louisiana to assist with rescues and evacuations.
"Our focus right now is in the greater New Orleans area, the North Shore, Florida Parishes through Baton Rouge and Acadiana," said Louisiana National Guard Adjutant General Glenn Curtis.
More than 1,000 of the soldiers have been positioned in the New Orleans area — most at Convention Center in New Orleans and the Alario Center in Westwego.
In addition to high-water vehicles and boats staged in more than 20 communities across the possible affected areas, the Air National Guard has multiple helicopters positioned in Hammond, Lake Charles and Alexandria to use as needed, Curtis said.
In anticipation of possible evacuations the state has positioned 300 buses in three staging areas: Zephyr Field in New Orleans, Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, and at a site in Lafayette.
Just hours after Gov. John Bel Edwards and the entire Louisiana congressional delegation requested it, President Donald Trump issued a federal disaster declaration Thursday evening. It expedites access to some federal resources as the state braces for the extreme weather.
The declaration, which could be extended to other parishes after Barry's effects are known, applies to the parishes of Acadia, Ascension, Assumption, Avoyelles, Calcasieu, Cameron, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Iberia, Iberville, Jefferson, Jefferson Davis, Lafayette, Lafourche, Livingston, Orleans, Ouachita, Plaquemines, Pointe Coupee, Rapides, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. Helena, St. James, St. John the Baptist, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Mary, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Terrebonne, Vermilion, Washington, West Baton Rouge and West Feliciana.
The president tweeted ahead of the formal declaration that he was working with state and local officials on the Gulf Coast. The governor said he anticipated the need for emergency protective measures, evacuations and sheltering for areas threatened by heavy rainfall and coastal flooding.
The declaration authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to begin potentially life-saving coordination efforts and prevent delays if the storm causes catastrophic damage as it moves across the state.
Barry prompted East Baton Rouge Parish to cancel residential trash service for Saturday.
In Pointe Coupee Parish, as they prepare for Barry's arrival, government officials have been slowly drawing down False River so there’s more drainage capacity for the expected heavy rains. The drawdown began Monday and continued Friday.
Parish President Major Thibaut said the level of False River, a critical waterway, has fallen two feet.
“Two-thirds of our parish drains into False River,” he said.
About 20 trusties at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center were manning two partially automated sandbagging machines late Friday morning at the rear of the huge state prison complex in Iberville Parish ahead of Tropical Storm Barry.
The prisoners, all serving time in state prison for assorted crimes, were 2½ days into a sandbagging effort that had already cranked out 21,450 sandbags before midday Friday.
The trusties volunteered for the duty outside and have been working 12-hour shifts in the day-long operation to help people prepare for what's expected to be a Category 1 hurricane when Barry makes landfall Saturday, the officials said.
"We'll do it until the need is over," said Perry Stagg, the deputy warden at Elayn Hunt.
Barry is estimated to bring 10 to 20 inches in the Baton Rouge area.
The bags have gone to Iberville Parish government to disperse throughout that parish, to the East Baton Rouge Parish Council on Aging, to the general public and to the Pontchartrain Levee District.
Staff writers David Mitchell, Terry Jones and Elizabeth Crisp contributed to this report.