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Sunday, August 25, 2019



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Storm analysis: Notes from a near disaster

Storm analysis: Notes from a near disaster


JEFFERSON, La. (AP) — When the forecast called for the Mississippi River to crest at around 20 feet at New Orleans, Macon Fry thought about moving over to a neighbor's higher-sitting house.

"I think the floor of my house is right about 19 feet, four inches," Fry said during an Associated Press interview.

He spoke as what was then Hurricane Barry was close to making landfall farther west — and as water lapped at the pilings supporting his house. It's one of about half a dozen on the river side of the Mississippi River at the line between New Orleans and Jefferson Parish. Fresh water marks on those pilings showed that the river was dropping. Fry was preparing to take his furniture off blocks and stay put.

He hadn't intended to go far.

"I would have been perversely curious to see what 19 or 20 feet looked like," Fry said. But not so curious that he wasn't happy when the forecasts changed. "I wasn't looking forward to spending the rest of the summer mucking out mud and pulling out stuff — or potentially seeing my house float. I don't think it would have floated, but that's happened to people that live on the batture."

Barry was full of surprises. Days before landfall, when it still was just a disturbance with no name in the Gulf of Mexico, it caught many off guard. Thunderstorms associated with it swamped New Orleans with a rush-hour deluge that flooded streets, cars, and some homes and businesses. Four days later, when it was a mere tropical depression moving into Arkansas, it was still pulling up rain bands that flooded homes and roads in parts of southwest Louisiana. As late as Tuesday, what was left of Barry was being blamed for a possible tornado in north Mississippi.

But, Barry, despite its far-flung reach, didn't live up to its potential as far as disasters go. It did not visit New Orleans with even more flash flooding, nor did it overtop the Mississippi River levees, as had been feared early on. Overall, its rain totals were less than once expected, sparing the Baton Rouge area the major flooding that hit in 2016.

Still, Barry caused more than its share of problems.

Ask Donald Smith, who instead of preparing meals in the days before the storm was using a push broom to guide the water from that surprise flash flood out of his restaurant on Basin Street in New Orleans. He held out hope for business from that weekend's Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Convention, but the convention concluded early and attendees headed out of town in anticipation of the storm.

Ask people who were busy dealing with overtopped levees in Plaquemines, St. Mary or Terrebonne Parishes, or maybe the volunteers helping crews sandbag a 600-foot stretch of the two-lane highway through the town of Jean Lafitte. "I'm here for my family — trying to save their stuff," said Vinnie Tortorich. "My cousin's house is already under."

Ask the people who were rescued from flooded homes, sometimes from rooftops.

Or the people who felt they should leave even if they were in areas where evacuations weren't ordered or suggested. Like Maria Thomas.

Riding out a hurricane means risking prolonged periods without power and without air conditioning. That can exacerbate the symptoms of the multiple sclerosis Thomas was diagnosed with four years ago. "If it gets above 70 degrees I get very sick. I can't walk and I look like I have had a stroke," she said.

Thomas, 43, leaves even though she has had some less-than-pleasant evacuation experiences. Like when she, with her wife, fled to her mother-in-law's house in Mandeville, only to have a tree fall on it. That was the Katrina evacuation of 2005, a storm that marked a certain rite of passage for her as a young adult.

"Prior to Katrina, storms were fun," says Thomas. "You got to play with flashlights and eat cold soup. It was an adventure.

"Not long into my adulthood, Katrina happened. It was like everything changed as soon as I became an adult."

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EDITORS NOTE: Kevin McGill is an Associated Press reporter in New Orleans.