NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Flooding in the streets of New Orleans paralyzed traffic Wednesday as concerns grew that this is just the beginning of a long week. A possible hurricane could strike the Gulf Coast and raise the Mississippi River to the brim of the city’s protective levees.
A tropical system, currently located in the Gulf of Mexico, south of the Florida Panhandle is forecasted to strengthen into a hurricane by the weekend as it approaches the Gulf Shore. The system is expected to become a Tropical Storm by Thursday night and potentially a Category 1 hurricane on Friday, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Lines of thunderstorms associated with the extreme outerbands of the system ranged far out into the Gulf and battered New Orleans, where as much as 7 inches (18 centimeters) of rain fell over a three-hour period Wednesday morning, forecasters said.
Mississippi and east Texas were also at risk of torrential rains.
In New Orleans, streets turned into small, swift rivers that overturned garbage cans and picked up pieces of floating wood. Water was up to the doors of many cars. Other vehicles were abandoned. Kayakers paddled their way down some streets.
Chandris Rethmeyer lost her car to the flood and had to wade through water about 4 feet (1.22 meters) deep to get to safety. Rethmeyer was on her way home after working an overnight shift when she got stuck behind an accident in an underpass and the water started rising.
“I was going to sit in my car and let the storm pass,” she said. “But I reached back to get my son’s iPad and put my hand into a puddle of water.”
Valerie R. Burton woke up to what looked like a lake outside her door on Wednesday morning.
“There was about 3 to 4 feet of water in the street, pouring onto the sidewalks and at my door. So I went to my neighbors to alert them and tell them to move their cars,” she said.
On Wednesday, the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board said 118 of 120 drainage pumps were operational and the agency was fully staffed to deal with the flooding. But the agency’s director says that a lot of rain in such a short time can overwhelmed any drainage system.
Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency in preparation for a potential hurricane this week and said National Guard troops and high-water vehicles would be positioned all over the state.
“The entire coast of Louisiana is at play in this storm,” Edwards said.
The state of Louisiana could see up to 12 inches (30 centimeters) of rain by next Monday, with some isolated areas receiving over 18 inches (46 centimeters).
The heavy additional rain could push the already swollen Mississippi River precariously close to the tops of levees that protect New Orleans, officials said.
A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans said the agency was not expecting widespread overtopping of the levees, but there are concerns for areas south of the city. The river was expected to rise to 20 feet (6 meters) by late Friday at a key gauge in New Orleans. The area is protected by levees 20 to 25 feet (6 to 7.6 meters) high, he said.
The Corps have been working with local officials to identify any low-lying areas and reinforce them, he said. He cautioned that the situation may change as more information about the storm arrives.
“We’re confident the levees themselves are in good shape. The big focus is height,” spokesman Ricky Boyett said.