SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Tropical Storm Barry is on track to become Hurricane Barry when it makes landfall today in Louisiana. Parts of the state already feel the impact. The biggest threat is flooding from Barry's torrential rains. NPR's Debbie Elliott is in New Orleans. Debbie, thanks for being with us.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hello. Glad to be here.
SIMON: And what's happening there now?
ELLIOTT: Well, it's pretty calm in New Orleans at the moment. But since yesterday, we've seen some, you know, gusty winds. There have been waves of showers. There were a few tornado warnings in the area overnight, but I haven't heard any damage reports from that. But the rain is expected to pick up as we move into the day.
SIMON: What's the track of this storm, and what's the impact been so far?
ELLIOTT: Well, it's just moving really slowly over the Gulf of Mexico. It's on a path to make landfall probably midday somewhere west of Morgan City, La. It's already causing flooding along the coast and in some areas that are prone to flooding. Earlier today, the Coast Guard had to rescue some people who were stranded on an island, Isle de Jean Charles. There are about 52,000 customers without power already - so already knocking down some power lines, putting some trees on power lines. Grand Isle on the Gulf of Mexico started flooding yesterday. That island is out of power as well.
You know, this is going to bring both flash flooding from the rain - 10 to 20 inches is in the forecast. You're also going to see the storm surge, you know, pushing up along the coast, some wind damage and what forecasters say could be record flooding of rivers and streams. The latest path from the Hurricane Center looks like the heaviest of that rain is probably headed for the Baton Rouge region.
SIMON: How well prepared is the state?
ELLIOTT: Well, the governor, John Bel Edwards, has activated the National Guard. They positioned boats and high-water vehicles. You know, Louisiana is used to this type of weather, so they've staged what they need to respond. And for the first time ever, officials have closed all of the flood gates on its multibillion-dollar protection system.
There's an unprecedented situation right now because there has been this months-long flood on the Mississippi River. And now it's colliding with this - what forecasters say will be a hurricane by the time it hits landfall. And so the water is really high. And the question has been whether Barry's storm surge would push water up over the levees. Now, the Army Corps of Engineers says, given the current forecast, it's very confident that the structures will hold.
SIMON: There must be unwelcome echoes of Hurricane Katrina.
ELLIOTT: You know, people do remember Hurricane Katrina, but this is so different, you know? The storm is not nearly as strong, and there's this new levee system.
I visited the Lower Ninth Ward yesterday. I talked to Burnell Lucien (ph). He was sitting on his front porch sort of watching the outer bounds of Barry blow through. His former home a few blocks away had gotten 9 feet of water when the levee broke after Katrina, and his family had already evacuated, so they were safe. You know, he's not worried about leaving this time. He has supplies, he says, to sustain him, but he isn't too concerned.
BURNELL LUCY: The levees are high. And we don't get the storm surge in the canals no more, you know? If it's just rainwater, we good, you know? We good.
SIMON: The fact that the path of storm wasn't clear - what did that mean for preparations?
ELLIOTT: You know, in New Orleans, for instance, it meant that there was not enough time to evacuate people should this storm have intensified further. Tourists were encouraged to leave if they could get a confirmed flight. There was sort of lots of lines at the airport yesterday. Those who couldn't get out are sheltered in their hotels. Mayor LaToya Cantrell says the nation should be alarmed by this weather.
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LATOYA CANTRELL: The storms are coming faster. They're more intense and more severe. That's a fact. And it's not something that the city of New Orleans is only dealing with. It's the United States of America.
ELLIOTT: So, Scott, what could be the first hurricane of the season is coming now, as other parts of the country are still trying to recover from last year's storms.
SIMON: NPR's Debbie Elliott on the job force in New Orleans. Thanks so much for being with us.
ELLIOTT: You're welcome.
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