Barry strengthens into a hurricane as it nears the Louisiana coast


Tropical Storm Barry, poised to make landfall as the first Atlantic hurricane of 2019, churned ever closer to Louisiana's shore early on Saturday as most New Orleans residents huddled at home, or in bars, bracing for the threat of severe flooding. "Don't let your guard down".

The storm, packing maximum sustained winds of 65 miles per hour (100 kph), was on track to reach hurricane strength shortly before crossing the Louisiana coastline southwest of New Orleans on Saturday, the National Weather Service said.

US Senator Bill Cassidy said officials with the Army Corps of Engineers told him they were "confident" that the 20-foot-high levee system protecting New Orleans, a city of 400,000, would hold.

Baton Rouge, which was devastated by floods in 2016, was similarly quiet Saturday, with puddles left from overnight rains, wind shaking the trees and only a few cars and trucks on thoroughfare Interstate 10.

A closed restaurant is pictured as Tropical Storm Barry approaches land in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S. July 13, 2019. And water went over the top of a "back levee" in Plaquemines Parish south of New Orleans in Myrtle Grove, a development of houses on stilts, with boat launches that sit on a canal, but that was expected, authorities said.

The impending storm could test beefed-up flood defenses put in place since the 2005 calamity of Hurricane Katrina, which left much of New Orleans underwater and killed about 1,800 people. Forecasts showed the storm on a path toward Chicago that would swell the Mississippi River basin with water that must eventually flow south again.

Video showed water overtopping a levee in Plaquemines Parish south of New Orleans, where fingers of land extend deep into the Gulf of Mexico.

Governors declared emergencies in both states, and authorities took unprecedented precautions in closing floodgates and raising the barriers around New Orleans.

AccuWeather's estimate is said to be based "on an analysis of damages expected from flooding caused by very heavy rainfall over several states and storm surge".

The storm is expected to bring heavy rains to an already saturated part of the US.

Many locations have closed the water to swimmers.

Property owners boarded up buildings, stocked up on water and braced for torrents of rain and punishing wind.

Almost 70% of crude oil production and 56% of natural gas output in the USA -regulated areas of the Gulf of Mexico has been cut because of the storm, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said.

For many, the storm and potential for large-scale flooding revived unpleasant memories of deadly Hurricane Katrina. But by early Saturday evening, the city saw only intermittent rain and gusty winds, with occasional glimpses of sunshine.

Forecasters said rainfall rates could be 2 to 3 inches per hour, and that could lead to some flash flooding before today is over.

A coastal storm surge into the mouth of the MS is expected to push its crest to 19ft in New Orleans, the highest level since 1950 and dangerously close to the top of the city's levees.

Governors declared emergencies in Louisiana and MS, and authorities took unprecedented precautions in closing floodgates and raising the barriers around New Orleans. Mayor LaToya Cantrell said New Orleans residents "are not out of the woods with this system". It was the first time since Katrina that all floodgates in the New Orleans area had been sealed. The barriers range in height from about 6m to 7.5m.

The center of Barry is forecast to move through southern Louisiana in the afternoon, and into central Louisiana on Saturday night, and into northern Louisiana on Sunday, according to the NWS.

Still, Edwards said he did not expect the MS to spill over the levees despite water levels already running high from spring rains and melting snow upstream.

Barry is expected to turn toward the north-northwest tonight, followed by a turn toward the north on Sunday (July 14), NOAA said.

In New Orleans, a group of neighbours cleaned out the storm drains on their street.