by Elodie MAZEIN
WASHINGTON, United States (AFP) — The US city of New Orleans prepared Wednesday to face the first tropical storm of the season, which could become a hurricane and led the governor of Louisiana to declare a state of emergency.
“It is still too soon to tell what the impact will be, but we believe there will be an impact,” New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said at a press conference in the city which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“Be prepared for the impacts,” she warned, reminding residents that the city had already received up to eight inches of rain in three hours that morning.
There was partial flooding.
New Orleans was placed under a storm-surge watch Wednesday morning along with a stretch of Louisiana coast as a tropical storm formed in the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the region with potentially life-threatening rains.
The storm-surge watches warn residents of possible flooding from rising waters and coastal inundations in the city, known worldwide for its Mardi Gras and jazz.
Part of New Orleans is built below sea level.
“Conditions appear favorable for this system to strengthen to a hurricane as it approaches the central Gulf Coast by the weekend,” the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.
If the storm becomes a hurricane as anticipated, it would be the first of the Atlantic season and would be named Barry.
Parts of the southeastern Louisiana coast were already experiencing heavy rains and flooding, the NHC said.
Jefferson Parish, which includes parts of New Orleans, was drenched in four to six inches of rain (10-15 centimeters) and two to three more inches were expected.
Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards declared the state of emergency, which allows the state to provide additional resources for storm preparation.
Residents in the risk zone are currently encouraged to stay home and “shelter in place.”
Wednesday morning nearly 10,000 inhabitants lost electricity in New Orleans.
During Hurricane Katrina levees collapsed under the weight of the water, flooding 80 percent of the city. More than 1,800 people died during the catastrophe.
At 2100 GMT Wednesday the storm system was 124 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River.
The storm packed sustained winds of 40 miles per hour (65 kilometers), still way below hurricane force of 74 miles per hour but on track to become a tropical storm by Thursday and a hurricane by Friday.
It was expected to unload as much as a foot of rain over the Gulf coast through early next week, forecasters said.
Local authorities also issued warnings to residents as the Mississippi River neared flood levels, rising to 16 feet (4.9 meters) in New Orleans as of 1300 GMT.
The levees protecting the city are built to hold back the river to a depth of 20 feet, a level that forecasters warned could be reached by Saturday morning.
During the press conference, a spokesman from Flood Protection said he was “confident” in the levees’ ability to hold back the water, while one of his colleagues added that the 118 pumps spread throughout the city where operating at “optimum capacity.”
The Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the flood control system, said it was “closely monitoring” the situation.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell closed the city hall and urged non-essential employees to stay home.
The city’s airport reported numerous flight delays, but it “will stay open unless conditions become unsafe or infrastructure is damaged,” an airport spokesman said during the press conference.
© Agence France-Presse