(TNS) - Hurricane Delta poses a major wind, storm surge and flooding rain threat to the entire Louisiana coast in advance of a possible landfall in Iberia and St. Mary parishes at Category 2 strength near Avery Island late Friday or early Saturday, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Update: Delta weakens a bit on its approach to the Yucatan
Delta on Tuesday afternoon shot up to Category 4 strength, with top winds of 145 mph at 7 p.m. as it approached Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, and is expected to remain a major hurricane as it crosses the center of the Gulf of Mexico over the next three days.
Forecasters with the Slidell office of the National Weather Service said the biggest threats for Louisiana are:
Potentially life-threatening storm surge, mostly along the coast outside of hurricane levee systems, with many locations possibly seeing surge levels of more than 10 feet.
Widespread damaging winds that are likely to result in electrical outages.
Heavy rainfall and the potential for both flash flooding and river flooding, largely to the east of where the center of the storm makes landfall, with rainfall generally totaling 6 inches Friday through Sunday, and locally higher amounts.
Gov. John Bel Edwards and a number of parish presidents declared states of emergency on Tuesday afternoon in anticipation of Delta's destructive powers.
But Edwards said he did not anticipate issuing mandatory evacuations for New Orleans or other major population centers protected by hurricane levees. Lower-lying areas and some areas protected by less resilient levees will likely see such orders, though.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell urged the city's residents to be vigilant during the next few days, while recognizing that Delta's threat has reduced somewhat by its slight shift westward on Tuesday.
"Today, we want folks to get ready and get prepared," Cantrell said. "The impact is expected as early as Friday morning."
While Delta doesn't appear to warrant an evacuation, Cantrell said the speed in which recent storms have formed and intensified has complicated long-established state evacuation plans, should they be required.
"Normally we would begin at hour 60," or nearly three days ahead of landfall, to evacuate residents, Cantrell said. "That wasn't an option at all."
New Orleans and other communities have had to plan on earlier evacuation starts to assure proper protection of evacuees from COVID-19. The pandemic has created a need for additional vehicles for transporting evacuees, the distribution of personal protective equipment, and the use of hotels, rather than large buildings, as shelters.
Hurricane Delta is approaching as the state is still recovering from Hurricane Laura, and Edwards said Louisiana was still sheltering more than 6,600 people in 12 hotels, including 10 in New Orleans, after consolidating the number of hotels used for evacuees.
Repairs to transmission lines and the movement of mobile housing into southwest Louisiana, where Laura struck, will likely have to be paused sometime this week, the governor added.
Plus, COVID-19 testing in Baton Rouge and New Orleans will likely have to be halted again Friday and Saturday. Such testing was also stopped during Hurricane Laura, which complicated the state’s tracking of the spread of the virus.
“This season has been relentless,” Edwards said. “Since early March, it just seems like one thing after another. But the fact of the matter is we don’t get to choose. This is the hand we have to play.”
Edwards said southwest Louisiana “is in no shape to withstand a storm” because of the lingering impacts of Laura, which smashed into Cameron Parish as a Category 4 storm. About 98% of Calcasieu Parish, home to Lake Charles, has had power restored, but work is ongoing to get redundant sources of electricity back online, which is important for heavy industry, like refineries.
Edwards’ emergency declaration gives the state the ability to procure resources through emergency contracts, instead of through the normal bid process. Mike Steele, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said parishes and the state must have emergencies declared in order for the state to get pumps, fuel and other resources to local officials.
State officials have been working with local authorities to deliver pumps to low-lying coastal areas and help prepare for the expected storm surge from Delta this week.
Several parishes and the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority have also begun emergency repairs on levees damaged during earlier storms this year, including on Grand Isle and in Terrebonne Parish.
Edwards also said he planned on requesting a national emergency declaration from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday, which would require approval by President Donald Trump.
The timing, strength and even the shape of Delta as it comes ashore was still in question Tuesday evening, in part because that landfall occurs between the center's 24-hour forecast points for storms three or more days away from landfall.
The 4 p.m. forecast path shifted about 30 miles to the west from the day's previous forecast. That might reduce the effects of surge and rain in the easternmost parts of the state, including the New Orleans area, but increases the risk of hurricane-force winds at inland points, including in Lafayette and Baton Rouge. And continued shifts to the west could increase the danger to portions of southwest Louisiana recovering from Hurricane Laura.
The storm is forecast to be at Category 3 strength, with top winds of 125 mph, at 2 p.m. Friday, when it is expected to still be well off the Louisiana coast. From that point until landfall, Delta is expected to run into increasing southwesterly wind shear and cooler water along the continental shelf, both of which should reduce its intensity, said Senior Hurricane Specialist Daniel Brown.
But the forecast models relied on by the center also expect that, even as Delta’s wind speeds slow, the size of its wind field will expand significantly while still over Gulf waters, increasing the area threatened by both storm surge and winds, Brown said.
The worst surge and winds are expected to occur to the east of the storm.
“So regardless of Delta’s final landfall intensity, the projected large size of the hurricane is likely to result in a significant storm surge and wind event for portions of the northern Gulf coast later this week,” he said.
In advance of Delta, the sixth storm to affect New Orleans this year, city officials will allow residents to park their cars on neutral grounds, starting at 6 p.m. Wednesday, in the event of heavy rain. Though the city is only expecting 4 to 6 inches of rain from the storm, even that amount of rain over a short enough time span can flood streets, New Orleans Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Director Collin Arnold said.
The city will also distribute sandbags at five locations starting Wednesday. Those locations are the Arthur Monday Center on Newton Street in Algiers, the Dryades YMCA on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, the Milne Recreation Center in Gentilly, St. Maria Goretti Church in New Orleans East, and the Mid-City Library on Canal Street.
In Jefferson Parish, President Cynthia Lee Sheng declared a state of emergency Tuesday. Jefferson has 193 drainage pumps and 73 pump stations operating at 100% capacity.
She encouraged residents to prepare emergency supplies, including food, water and medicines, for at least three days, and to clean gutters and drainage catch basins. Regular garbage pickup and other parish services were continuing Tuesday.
Plaquemines Parish also declared a state of emergency Tuesday. Parish President Kirk Lepine did not call for an evacuation, but he asked residents to begin preparing for possible storm surges, heavy wind and rain, flooding and other storm threats. Public Service and Operation Department crews were cleaning canals and catch basins and testing pumps throughout the parish.
Parish officials encouraged residents to clear leaves and other debris to reduce flood risk. If heavy rain occurs, residents should remove all recycling and garbage bins from curbs and secure them to limit the amount of debris clogging storm drains.
Starting Wednesday at noon, parishwide sandbag locations will be open. Parish officials urged residents to bring their own shovels and take only what they need. Bags will be provided.
Parish officials recommend registering in advance for evacuation assistance by calling (504) 274-2470 and leaving a message with the evacuee's name, address, number of dogs and cats, and contact information.
Staff writers Tristan Baurick, Jessica Williams and Faimon Roberts contributed to this story.
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