Five things to watch as Barry barrels through the Gulf

Five things to watch as Barry barrels through the Gulf
© NOAA

Tropical Storm Barry is expected to hit the Louisiana coast as early as Saturday, threatening to send floodwaters in New Orleans and other areas of the state.

While it doesn’t appear that Barry will bring tremendous wind power, there are legitimate fears about storm surges causing extensive damage and endangering those who do not evacuate from areas set to be hit by the weather event.

Here are five things to watch for.

New Orleans levees may be tested

New Orleans’s levee system was rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but experts have long worried another strong storm would wipe out the $14 billion in infrastructure designed to protect the city from flooding.

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The National Weather Service (NWS) has forecast that the Mississippi River, which snakes through the city, will crest at 19 feet. Though a foot lower than previously predicted, that’s still uncomfortably close for many residents, as most levees would be topped by river heights between 20 to 22 feet, according to Nola.com

Even if the storm doesn’t reach hurricane strength winds, it’s expected to bring a lot of rain. NWS is predicting between 10 and 20 inches of rain through Saturday. 

The Associated Press described the city as facing a triple threat as water moves in from the sea, the river and the sky. 

But it’s not just New Orleans. Coastal Louisiana is quite literally sinking into the Gulf, putting greater pressure on an area highly impacted by flooding. 

Other towns hit by Michael are also in Barry’s path

Any storm traveling through the Gulf will mean heavy wind and rain for towns that are still recovering from Hurricane Michael in October.

Aerial footage of the Florida Panhandle shows trees on their sides and roofs ripped from homes.

Beach homes in Panama City and Mexico Beach were badly damaged, but small towns further away from the shoreline — rural, poor and far from the big tourist destinations — were hit hard. 

Months after the hurricane, towns were still waiting to hear whether they would get federal disaster assistance. Small towns like Marianna, population 6,000 before the storm, has seen its residents scatter after the housing stock was badly damaged.

City manager Jim Dean told NPR in March he was worried the city couldn’t take on the debt needed to rebuild.

“You're going to have to be very selective at what you do, or you're going to put yourself so far in debt that you're going to be paying off debt from this storm before you even begin to provide a baseball field for your kids to play baseball on,” Dean said. “Before you buy a new police car, before you buy a fire truck. Just because you're picking up trees.”

Energy sources could be disrupted and there are pollution worries

Offshore oil rigs are shutting down in preparation for the storm. Nearly 40 percent of rigs in the Gulf have evacuated employees, according to the Bureau of Environmental Enforcement, which oversees offshore activity. That figure is up 10 points just from the day before. 

There’s always the chance that a pause in drilling could cause disruptions on the market, but Hurricane Harvey showed the potential storms and the resulting flooding have for exacerbating pollution from industrial sites.

When Harvey hit Houston in 2017, it flooded a city known for its refineries and other industrial sectors and chemical manufacturers. It also has more than a dozen Superfund sites full of hazardous waste. That lead to chemical spills, river contamination and other pollution problems.

Similarly, Hurricane Florence overwhelmed animal waste lagoons, leaching bacteria into the water.

The flooding in both states serves as a reminder of the breadth of contamination that is spread in floodwaters. 

Is this related to climate change?

The increasing frequency and intensity of major storms has been attributed to climate change.

“We’re seeing a record-breaking disaster at least once a year; in a decade there will be at least a half dozen every year; in three decades devastating disasters will be common all over the world,” the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a release.

If Tropical Storm Barry advanced to a hurricane, that would be an early storm for the season, which typically ramps up in the fall.

But it’s not uncommon to see storms of this size develop in the Gulf this time of year, as these maps from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show.

“This is the time of year you get storms in the Gulf,” said Steve Morrey, a professor at Florida A&M University who also works with the Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies. 

Trump could face a challenge

President TrumpDonald John TrumpZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Trump leaning toward keeping a couple hundred troops in eastern Syria: report Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' MORE has been heavily criticized for his response to Hurricane Maria, and this storm could present similar challenges.

People will be watching to see how he responds to a storm that could have severe impacts on New Orleans, a majority black town where 25 percent live below the poverty level.

Months after Maria, cities are still waiting on payments from the federal government in order to be able to continue to pay for recovery efforts.  

House Democrats have repeatedly pushed the administration to defend its lengthy response time to a hurricane that caused one of the largest power outages of all time.