As Hurricane Harvey headed Thursday toward the Texas coast with some uncertainty about where it would end up in the days ahead, Louisiana state and local officials prepared for a slow-moving storm that could dump lots of rain across the southern and central parts of the state.
Though the storm track from the National Hurricane Center has Harvey slamming into the Corpus Christi, Texas, area late Friday or early Saturday, the Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Lafayette regions will be under the storm's eastern feeder bands and are expected to see between 5 and 10 inches of rain through next Friday.
Rain amounts decrease for cities farther east in Louisiana, with New Orleans predicted to see more like 4 to 6 inches while areas southwest of Lafayette could be closer to 6 to 10 inches. Parts to the state well to the southwest, including Lake Charles, could see 15 to 20 inches, the National Hurricane Center reported.
Gov. John Bel Edwards' issued an anticipatory disaster declaration and has been in contact with the White House and Texas officials. FEMA has a team on the ground in Louisiana already.
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"It is organizing and gaining strength over time," Edwards told reporters after a Thursday briefing with state officials and regular updates with the National Weather Service. "The nature of this storm has changed very much over the last number of hours. It's getting more and more serious as time goes by."
Freddie Zeigler, forecaster with the National Weather Service’s office in Slidell, said the 5 to 10-inch forecast for the Baton Rouge area over the next week poses a limited flooding risk for the next two days, but an elevated one overall as rain bands are expected to move over the state later this weekend and early next week. The risk could include flash flooding with some street and minor river flooding.
By comparison, when the Baton Rouge region experienced widespread flooding last year, hard hit neighborhoods were inundated with around two feet of rain over two days. But Zeigler also warned that rain bands prompted by hurricanes and tropical storms also tend to train over the same areas and can produce much more rain in those localized spots than the 5- to 10-inch prediction, even double that amount.
East Baton Rouge City-Parish officials told residents to begin preparations and began making sandbags available at BREC parks. Ascension Parish officials readied that parish's pumping system while New Orleans officials announced emergency repairs had brought the number of working pumps to 106 out of 120 and restored one of the city's critical power turbines back into service.
The National Weather Service said the Harvey was continuing to strengthen Thursday in the Gulf of Mexico's warm waters and was expected to be at least a Category 3 storm with maximum sustained winds of at least 111 mph power when it makes landfall.
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If Harvey does make landfall as at least a Category 3, or "major hurricane," it would be the first time that has happened on the mainland United States in more than a decade. State Climatologist Barry Keim said that last time a major hurricane made landfall on the United States' mainland was Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
The Hurricane Center predicted Thursday afternoon that Harvey will slow down once it moves inland in Texas, make a loop and then move northeast toward Louisiana.
"Then they have it kind of bobbing and weaving along the coast there for a couple of days until it starts drifting toward the northeast, toward Louisiana. It's going to sort of hug along the coast line," Keim said.
The predicted movement toward Louisiana represents a small tweak from earlier forecasts on Thursday, which had a less certain picture of where the storm would go after landfall in Texas, but Keim also warned that the storm does not have much in the way of steering currents that would provide a clearer picture of the path.
"The margin of error on a forecast like this is pretty high. 'Cause essentially there's no steering, and there's just no telling really which direction it's going to go," Keim said, "but at least now they're slightly, ever so slightly, more confident that it's going to start drifting toward Louisiana as opposed to heading south and west towards Brownsville (Texas)."
Zeigler said some models have the storm lingering until next Friday while others have it moving well north toward Kentucky.
One possibility also has the storm moving out back over the Gulf of Mexico, which Gov. Edwards noted during his news conference.
Update, 6:00 p.m., Aug. 25, 2017
Shortly after Harvey was upgraded to a Category 1 hurricane, Edwards warned that its path remains uncertain and that the storm still poses a risk for Louisiana — currently most directly in Southwest Louisiana but potentially all parts of the state over the coming weeks due to heavy rains and already rain-saturated ground.
Though no signs of Harvey have reached Louisiana yet, the state disaster declaration ahead of landfall sets up the process for a federal disaster declaration, if one is later needed.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that President Donald Trump is staying updated on the storms and "stands ready to provide resources if needed."
The Trump administration does not currently have a permanent Homeland Security secretary at the peak of hurricane season. DHS oversees FEMA. Since Trump elevated Gen. John Kelly to chief of staff, Deputy Secretary Elaine Duke has been serving at the top in an acting capacity.
But Sanders said that should not be cause for concern.
"We are in great shape having Gen. Kelly sitting next to the president throughout this process," she said during Thursday's press briefing at the White House.
A particular focus for Edwards has been the situation in New Orleans, where emergency repairs are ongoing to restore the city's critical pump system.
The threat of flooding, after the city was swamped by heavy rains earlier this month, has prompted discussions about evacuations plans but Edwards said that it's too early to call for parts of the city to evacuate.
"We are making sure that we have current plans in place in New Orleans and identifying those areas that are particularly vulnerable," Edwards said. "The planning has been refined, but I don't want anybody to think that we or the city of New Orleans at this time is close to pulling the trigger on evacuation."
The Louisiana National Guard, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the state fire marshal are positioning boats and high water vehicles in case they are needed in the city.
"We're going to have pretty good capacity inside the city if we need it," said Major Gen. Glenn Curtis, adjutant general for the Louisiana National Guard.
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This story was edited after publication.