Originally Published: 13 JUL 19 04:43 ET
Updated: 13 JUL 19 12:12 ET
By Christina Maxouris and Dakin Andone, CNN
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(CNN) -- Barry strengthened into a Category 1 hurricane Saturday morning as it crawled toward the Louisiana coast, unloading powerful winds, heavy rain and storm surge ahead of an expected landfall later in the day, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The center of Barry -- the first hurricane to hit the US this year -- as of 11 a.m. ET was about 40 miles south of Lafayette, Louisiana, and about 50 miles west of Morgan City, Louisiana, with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph and creeping at 6 mph.
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Rainfall poses the greatest threat. Barry's slow trek means residents from the Gulf Coast through the lower Mississippi Valley will see extended heavy downfalls that could prompt flooding that lasts into next week, forecasters said.
Dangerous coastal storm surge had overtopped levees by midday Saturday along the far reaches of Louisiana's coast, local officials reported. Tornadoes also posed a risk from southeast Louisiana to south Alabama.
Ludovico Torri woke Saturday to find Lake Pontchartrain lapping at his home in Mandeville, Louisiana, north of New Orleans.
"When we woke up this morning, the entire street and area under the house was under water," he told CNN. "The waves from the lake are crashing onto the land as if it is all one big lake."
"We're stuck in the house with four kids, and the car is almost flooding," Torri said, noting that within an hour and a half, the water had risen a foot. "The wind's getting stronger, and the water is rising and rising."
Though heavy, sustained rain still threatens the New Orleans area, fears among residents and forecasters there relaxed as a predicted storm surge on the unusually high Mississippi River happened late Friday at a lower level than anticipated, according to the National Weather Service in New Orleans.
The developing factors had called to mind for some the death and destruction wrought in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, though the weather and flood-infrastructure circumstances are not the same.
A hurricane warning is in effect along part of the Louisiana coast, while inland areas, including the lower Mississippi Valley, are under tropical storm warnings. Storm surge warnings along the coast extend from Intracoastal City, south of Lafayette, to Biloxi, Mississippi, and along Lake Pontchartrain.
Tropical-storm-force winds will extend up to 175 miles outward from the storm's center.
More than 77,000 customers across Louisiana were without power on Saturday morning, utility providers said. Hundreds of flights in New Orleans were canceled, and some cruise ship departures were in flux.
The real danger is the rain, governor says
Top of mind as Barry nears land is the heavy rains and related flooding it's expected to usher in.
"We are talking about 18-24 hours after landfall, the rain will still be coming down and will be the issue," CNN Meteorologist Michael Guy said.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said some areas could see up to 25 inches of rain.
"Nobody should take this storm lightly just because it's supposed to be a Category 1 (hurricane) when it makes landfall," the governor said. "The real danger in this storm was never about the wind anyway, it's always been about the rain, and that remains a very significant threat."
When the ground is as saturated as it already is in the region, the governor said, the risks are endless. "It doesn't take much wind to cause a tree to fall or a utility pole to fall," he said. "These hazards are going to present themselves all over the state."
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In Morgan City, where the hurricane is expected to make landfall, officials and city workers are worried about lingering water. The fishing and oil hub is about 70 miles southwest of New Orleans and south of Lafayette.
With up to 30 inches of rain projected this weekend for the region, Mayor Frank "Boo" Grizzaffi worried it may be more than the city's drainage system can take.
"We can handle the first 5 inches, but after that, we can pump 1 inch per hour. If we get rain greater than that, it will exceed our capacity to pump it out," he told CNN.
Evacuations ordered and National Guard called up
Across the region, cities and parishes have issued mandatory evacuation orders, especially in low-lying areas and those outside public levee protection, along with voluntary evacuation warnings for other places, the governor said. For the first time since their construction, all major floodgates on the Mississippi River are closed, he added.
The state's forces also have mobilized in anticipation of search and rescue missions, he said.
A rescue already was underway midmorning Saturday -- and more calls for help had come in -- in coastal Terrebonne Parish, east of Morgan City, the US Coast Guard said. At least a dozen people needed to be saved along Island Road, effectively a bridge that traverses the marshy bayou that opens into the gulf.
Four people and a cat were picked up by a MH-65 Dolphin helicopter and taken inland to Houma, Louisiana, Coast Guard Petty Officer Lexie Preston said. A 24-foot Coast Guard response boat also was launched from Morgan City to help with rescues.
Following President Donald Trump's state of emergency declaration, Louisiana officials activated 3,000 National Guard members in anticipation of Barry, the governor said. And despite the state's long-honed expertise in facing this sort of threat and its enhanced post-Katrina storm defenses, residents were urged to be prepared.
Canceled flights, cruises and a concert
More than 250 flights were canceled as of Saturday morning in and out of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware.
Three Carnival Cruise Line ship departures scheduled for Saturday, Sunday and Monday are in limbo following the closure of ports in New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama. The cruise line said it will update passengers Saturday morning.
Meantime, the Rolling Stones postponed a Saturday concert to Monday.
"Hang on to your tickets," the legendary band tweeted. "We're here with you -- we'll get through this together."
Mississippi River threat dissolves
Officials earlier this week had warily eyed the Mississippi River as it far exceeded its usual midsummer levels owing to this year's historic storms throughout the valley. Barry had been expected to produce a storm surge of 2 to 3 feet at the river's mouth and push the waterway's height to about 19 feet in New Orleans, frighteningly close to the top of levees that protect up to 20 feet.
Those fears have calmed since late Friday, when the surge crest happened and pushed the river only to 16.9 feet, the weather service's New Orleans office tweeted. The risk of overtopping was minimal, the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness said.
Barry's heavy rain is predicted to push the river level up again on Monday, but only to 17.1 feet, forecasters said.
Storm triggers latent Katrina fears
For some in New Orleans, Barry -- on the heels of a swift, strong rainstorm Wednesday that flooded some homes and businesses -- brought to mind Katrina, when the failure of federal levees let Lake Pontchartrain and other adjacent waterways spill into the city while at the same time rendering the municipal drainage system useless to pump that water out.
Tanya Gulliver-Garcia, who lives in the city's Broadmoor neighborhood, flew out ahead of Barry, leaving behind neighbors with vivid memories of the 2005 destruction, she said.
"This storm is stressing them out," Gulliver-Garcia told CNN. "Trauma stays in your body, and Katrina left a lot of trauma behind."
Most New Orleanians, though, opted to stay put. Herman Grady evacuated during Katrina, but this time, he's staying back.
"I'm tired of running," the 72-year-old told CNN affiliate WDSU.
Many residents aren't eager to endure the expense and effort of leaving, compared with what could be a few uncomfortable hours or days without power or other amenities. Many also want to stay home so they can bail water if it rises, then dry out floors and drywall as soon as it recedes so mold doesn't take root and worsen damage.
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