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Tropical Storm Barry threatens New Orleans with significant rain, surge potential

Tropical Storm Barry is poised to strike New Orleans with significant rainfall, posing a serious flooding threat in an area where a wet spring has left the Mississippi River unusually high. State officials are urging residents to take precautions but to stay in one place and avoid high water. John Yang reports and Judy Woodruff talks to Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As Tropical Storm Barry closed in on the state of Louisiana this evening, residents and local officials prepared for its arrival overnight as a hurricane-level storm.

    As John Yang tells us, the greatest risk may not be the winds, but intense rain and a likelihood of significant flooding.

  • John Yang:

    Waves, wind and rain began hitting New Orleans and Louisiana's Gulf Coast today, as Barry neared hurricane strength.

    Forecasters warn the storm could linger over the state through Sunday and drop up to 20 inches of rain, triggering serious flooding. The Mississippi River is already unusually high from a wet spring.

    Earlier this week, New Orleans' French Quarter flooded after heavy rain. Sandbags were being filled and distributed. Flooding could hit further north, including Baton Rouge.

    Rachel Young said her family is not taking any chances.

  • Rachel Young:

    They're already preparing, like boarding up windows, got a bunch of sand. Typically, it doesn't flood in that area, but you never know. So we're taking every precaution necessary.

  • John Yang:

    Governor John Bel Edwards warned of the risks.

  • Gov. John Bel Edwards, D-La.:

    Nobody should take this storm lightly just because it's supposed to be a Category 1 when it makes landfall.

    You just go back to 2016. We didn't have all the advanced warning that we have had today. And we had 56 out of 74 parishes declare a major federal disaster because of those floods.

  • John Yang:

    There were some evacuations in low-lying areas, but New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell told residents to shelter in place.

  • Latoya Cantrell:

    Stay dry as best as possible. Again, high and heavy rainfalls, this is what we're preparing for. Make sure that you, again, just stay put.

  • John Yang:

    In the city's Lower Ninth Ward, devastated in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of levees, many residents are sticking it out. But they are watching the levees and potential storm surge.

  • Georgina Mitchell:

    It's an eerie feeling. You don't ever get comfortable until you know it's over.

  • Christine Villines:

    We're not going to evacuate. We're just going to ride it out. We have kind of taken the attitude that this is what we signed up for. We live in New Orleans. This is what happens.

  • John Yang:

    The margin of safety could be thin. In New Orleans, the Mississippi is expected to crest tomorrow at about 19 feet. The city's levees range from about 20 to 25 feet.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    State officials said they were still confident today that floodwaters wouldn't overtop the levees.

    To explore the concerns over rain, storm surge, and how long this storm might last, I'm joined by Ken Graham. He's director of the National Hurricane Center.

    Ken Graham, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, please give us your — the latest information you have on the track of this storm.

  • Ken Graham:

    Yes, the latest information that we have is just this very large storm, somewhat disorganized, but, at the same time, strengthening through the afternoon, so 65 mile-an-hour winds, and just an expansive system covering most of the Gulf of Mexico.

    So, the latest information, very similar track that we have been talking about for the last few days, slow movement, so just a lot of tropical-storm-force winds well outside of the cone and a big rain event.

    Whether it becomes a hurricane before landfall or a tropical storm, that difference is just a mile-an-hour. Got to prepare for all the rainfall and storm surge.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mentioned several times the slowness of it. Why does that add to your worry so much?

  • Ken Graham:

    You know, a slow storm is our nemesis. Slow and large storms are just — they compound the issues.

    The slower the storm, the more chance there is to dump a lot of that rainfall. The slower the storm, there's more time for the winds to push storm surge into every bayou and into rivers and bays.

    So , those slow storms — and we have seen this in the past with these slow storms — they just cause so many more problems, because they're just here longer. So, even the winds saturate the soil. Put the winds on top of that, there's more trees down, more power lines down. You get more power outages in a situation like this as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we know New Orleans was already hit with a lot of rain in the middle of this week. How much does that compound the concern?

  • Ken Graham:

    Yes.

    When you pre-saturate some of the soil, it really doesn't help things at all, because, you look at this, we don't even issue a risk higher than this. I mean, this is a high risk of flash flooding. And in the areas in red, that's a moderate risk.

    So, yes, you saturate some of those soils, put more rain on that, it just compounds the issue. That's why we have this just — just this area here, that we don't issue that very often. So a high risk means there's just a really good chance, more than a 50 percent chance, anybody in that area could see flash flooding with this system.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ken Graham, what are you and your colleagues telling people who live in that area right now?

  • Ken Graham:

    We are telling them that the tropical-storm-force winds are already making their way on land. It's time to prepare yourselves, and that time is running out.

    And we're really letting people know the fact that just be careful. If the local officials tell you not to be around these low areas where the storm surge is and the rain and these low areas of the bayous, you got to get out. If you're told to get out, you have to get out.

    The water is already getting there. We have already seen some tide gauges come up. And these — this is the forecast for the storm surge, I mean, three to five feet in Lake Pontchartrain, and along the Louisiana coast up to six foot storm surge.

    So it's a dangerous situation. And it's interesting, because 83 percent of the fatalities in the last three years, really, tropical systems, has been from the inland rain, half of those in automobiles.

    So we're telling people, just when the rain is there, the flooding is there, please stay off the roads.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    People, of course, remember Katrina and the terrible devastation and loss of life.

    How do you compare something like this to that?

  • Ken Graham:

    Usually, the message that we tell people is, we actually tell them never to compare storms.

    And it's interesting, because people's risk perception is based on their — basically a previous experience when it comes to storms. But every one of them is so different. I always talk about little wiggles matter.

    I mean, just 20, 30 miles in either direction could spell a couple feet of storm surge vs. six or seven feet. So, I tell people, be careful comparing storms. They are all different. We spend so much time here at the Hurricane Center talking about the hazards and the impacts.

    That's what we want people to listen to. Listen to the forecast for the rain and the storm surge. That indeed is what's hurting people and killing them historically. So let's have those conversations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, just finally, quickly, how many days, how long do you think we're going to be talking about this storm?

  • Ken Graham:

    We got — through the weekend.

    It's been interesting with this slow movement, so, over the next 24 hours or so, making landfall. But with time I mean, if you look at this, Monday morning, Monday afternoon, we're still going to be a tropical depression into Arkansas. So, that means heavy rain not just along the coast, but well inland, Mississippi, Tennessee, even stretching up into Missouri with time.

    I mean, we're going to be talking about that into early next week. So, this is not just a coastal event. We got to make sure even people inland are ready for it over the weekend and even next week.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you so much for all this information. So helpful. Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center, we appreciate it.

  • Ken Graham:

    Absolutely.

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