NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana – The National Weather Service issued tropical storm warnings Thursday night from Pascagoula, Mississippi, to the Texas state line. Forecasters said the tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico was likely to develop into a tropical storm within the next day and could dump up to 20 inches of rain on Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi.
This slow-moving tropical system is packing walloping rains as it creeps its way to the Gulf Coast and was expected to make landfall on Saturday in Louisiana where the governor has declared a state of emergency.
Craig Taffaro, president of coastal St. Bernard Parish, said some flood gates were being closed along bayous and residents were being warned to brace for heavy rain. On Grand Isle, the state’s only inhabited barrier island, people were keeping an eye on the forecasts.
“We’re watching it – we’re watching it closely,” said June Brignac, owner of the Wateredge Beach Resort. It’s not as frightening as having a Category 2 or 3 hurricane bearing in on the state, she said: “But we’re still concerned with all the rain that’s coming in, causing possible flooding of the highway going out. If we don’t leave, we may be trapped here until it’s completely past.” She said Hurricane Katrina is the only storm to flood the suites in her motel, which is raised several feet from the ground, in the 20 years she has owned it.
Early forecasts were for landfall early Saturday afternoon in south-central Louisiana, though Revitte said it was too early for a firm time or location. The sluggish system is expected to get even slower, making it even more likely to it likely to pack drenching rains.
“Wow. This could be a very heavy, prolific rain-maker,” NWS meteorologist Frank Revitte Revitte said. “Generally, we’re thinking 10 to 15 inches over the next three to five days. There could be some isolated amounts near 20 inches by the time it’s all over with,” Revitte said.
With the depression’s center about 250 miles south-southwest of New Orleans and had already brought some rain to the area Thursday evening.
The state needs rain – just not that much, that fast. All of both Texas and Louisiana have been suffering through drought. Texas is currently battling a wildfire, and the New Orleans area has been blanketed by smoke from a stubborn marsh fire.
“Sometimes you get what you ask for,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, noting that rain from the system was helping with the fire. “Unfortunately it looks like we’re going to get more than we needed.”
Based on predictions that the system could dump 12 to 15 inches of rain along the coast and inland over the next two days, Gov. Bobby Jindal declared an emergency through the end of the month.
“Now is the time for Louisianians to make sure they have a game plan for themselves and their families should this storm strengthen,” Jindal said in a statement.
The emergency declaration lets him call out the National Guard if necessary and generally makes it easier for parishes and the state to prepare. It also lets parishes ask the state to repay money spent to prepare and fight floods, and lets the state track such expenses, said Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin.
Charlotte Randolph, president of low-lying Lafourche Parish, also declared a state of emergency Thursday, saying coastal parts of the parish might get up to 18 inches of rain through Monday.
New Orleans could handle a foot of rain in 24 hours, if it was spread out over all 24. The city’s pumps can handle an inch of rain in the first hour, and a half-inch an hour after that.
Oil companies brought in workers from a small number of offshore platforms. Small craft warnings were issued from northwest Florida to Texas as seas of at least 1 to 2 feet above normal were in the forecasts. Winds are likely to push tides up to three feet above normal.
The heaviest rainfall was still in the Gulf of Mexico Thursday evening, with radar indicating 3 to 4 inches in some areas off the mouth of the Mississippi River, said meteorologist Fred Zeigler of the National Weather Service’s office in Slidell. He said radar estimates indicated half an inch on Grand Isle and one-half to three-quarters of an inch in southwest Mississippi.
“It’s kind of early for the rainfall totals,” he said.
Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil said they would bring in personnel from a handful of platforms and cut off a small amount of oil and gas production. The moves affect nine of 617 staffed production platforms in US waters in the Gulf, according to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement. The agency said about 5.7 percent of oil and 2.4 percent of gas production would be affected.
Sporadic heavy rain began hitting the New Orleans area on Thursday, aiding firefighters battling the wildfire that has been burning for more than a week in a marshy area of New Orleans accessible only by air. The rain prompted state environmental officials to drop an air quality alert for the area.
NWS meteorologist Donald Jones in Lake Charles, Louisiana, said Texas should get some benefit from the system, which was already spawning showers off the southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas coast.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which operates major flood control structures at New Orleans, was monitoring developments.
“At this time, we do not anticipate closing any of our structures,” spokesman Ricky Boyett said in an email. “However, we will continue to monitor the conditions in the Gulf very closely and are making all of the necessary preparations in the event that these conditions change.”