Tropical Storm Nate gained strength Friday as the central Gulf Coast prepared for its landfall as a Category 1 hurricane as early as Saturday evening, bringing damaging winds and storm surge to a part of the coast that had largely been spared in this extraordinarily busy hurricane season.
The storm, already blamed for at least 22 deaths in Nicaragua and Costa Rica this week, is expected to strengthen as it crosses unusually warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico and to make landfall in the United States with maximum sustained winds of about 80 mph. New Orleans officials have ordered mandatory evacuations of three low-lying areas of the city.
The National Weather Service on Friday put much of coastal Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama under a hurricane warning. Rain bands are likely to strike the coast as early as Saturday afternoon.
Here in the Crescent City, where memories of the 2005 Katrina catastrophe remain vivid, officials have acknowledged that their hobbled network of pumping stations could be overmatched by Nate’s downpours.
But Mayor Mitch Landrieu sounded upbeat and resolute in a news conference Friday afternoon, even as he announced a curfew starting at 7 p.m. Saturday and lasting until Sunday morning.
“We are ready for whatever Nate brings our way,” Landrieu said. “If we all stay informed, if we all stay alert, if we all stayed prepared, ultimately we will all be safe.”
The city’s drainage system has been challenged even by typical summer storms. Parts of New Orleans have flooded several times this year, including as recently as last week. The worst flooding occurred after torrential rains Aug. 5, when up to nine inches fell in just a few hours.
The city’s drainage system is “terribly underfunded,” Landrieu said.
“It’s old. It’s tired. It’s like your grandmother’s car that’s got 400,000 miles on it,” he said. “The pumping system in the city of New Orleans is as old as Calvin Coolidge.”
Landrieu said 109 of the city’s 120 drainage pumps were operational, with contractors working round-the-clock to repair the remainder. Inland flooding from rain is not the primary threat from Nate, he noted, but rather the storm surge along the coast, and most of all the wind, which he warned could turn objects left outdoors into dangerous projectiles.
He reminded residents that they should not drive through underpasses that flood readily. He said they can park their vehicles where they find higher ground without fear of parking tickets — enforcement of violations will be suspended starting at 8 a.m. Saturday.
By Saturday, the Port of New Orleans will be closed, and most of the 200 floodgates in the city and surrounding parishes will be closed. More than 350 members of the National Guard will be on the ground.
Friday morning, the city began providing 17,000 sandbags to residents at five locations across town. Police set up 146 barricades in flood-prone areas, and boats and high-water vehicles were lined up at fire and police stations.
Melonie Stewart, customer service director at Entergy, New Orleans’s sole energy provider, warned residents to be prepared for up to seven days without power from the grid.
Nate appears most likely to hit the Gulf Coast to the east of New Orleans. It could deliver a storm surge of four to seven feet above normally dry land, forecasters said. Wherever the storm makes landfall, areas east of the eye will experience stronger winds than those to the west.