The outer bands of rain from Hurricane Rita began falling in New Orleans today, and forecasts of between 8 and 13 centimetres of rainfall in the coming days raised fears the patched levee system could fail and flood the city all over again.
A direct hit from Hurricane Rita is still unlikely, but the category-five storm veered on a more northerly course toward a Saturday landfall in Texas that put New Orleans on the eastern edge of tropical storm warning.
Rita’s rains and a predicted 1-metre storm surge could bring New Orleans dangerously close to predictions that the fractured levees can only handle up to 15 centimetres of rain and a storm surge of three metres.
“Right now, it’s a wait and see and hope for the best,” said Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Mitch Frazier. He added that the new forecast brought renewed urgency to efforts to shore up levees with sandbags and bring in more portable pumps.
Today’s showers were the first measurable rainfall in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina’s August 29 landfall broke the levees in several places and flooded 80% of the city.
Only spotty showers were falling by midmorning, but forecasters said there could be brief periods heavy downpours as Rita’s squall bands moved through.
Frazier said his biggest concern was the storm surge, which the National Hurricane Centre said will be one metre above normal in the parts of Louisiana and Mississippi affected by Katrina.
But a slight turn could increase that dramatically.
A tidal surge of four to six metres was expected from Corpus Christi, Texas, to south-central Louisiana.
Engineers say a three-metre surge was required to overtake the levees at 17th Street and the London canal in New Orleans. But in neighbouring St Bernard Parish, a surge of about one and a half metres was all that was needed to swamp the area again.
If the levees fail again, the areas of New Orleans that are most likely to flood are the same neighbourhoods inundated by Katrina, many of which have been dry for less than a week.
“If it’s a quick, fast rain, we’ll see localised flooding,” Frazier said. “There no doubt about that.”
The process of getting the water from Katrina out was nearly complete, with only about 10% of the city still flooded, and the Corps is confident it will be able to quickly pump water out again.
Searchers looking for bodies continued smashing into homes that had been locked or submerged under Katrina’s highest floodwaters, pushing the overall body count past 1,000.
The death toll in Louisiana alone stood at 799 yesterday, an increase of 153 since the weekend and nearly 80% of the 1,036 deaths attributed to Katrina across the Gulf Coast region.
Officials said the body search could last another four to six weeks and could yield many more dead.
“There still could be quite a few, especially in the deepest flooded areas,” said US Coast Guard Capt Jeffrey Pettitt. “Some of the houses, they haven’t been in yet.”
Mark Heimann, a FEMA field spokesman, said the searches will continue, but officials were keeping a close eye on the weather. Special reconnaissance teams are looking for solid buildings in search areas in case rescuers need to rush to higher ground.
“It’s almost impossible to predict,” Heimann said.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin continued to urge residents to get out of the city. A mandatory evacuation order is in effect for the entire east bank of the Mississippi, and some 500 buses were standing by at the convention centre, but few seemed to be taking advantage.
Only 27 people had been evacuated by the end of yesterday.
Today’s shifting forecast prompted Gov Kathleen Blanco to urge everyone in the coastal parishes of south-west Louisiana to evacuate and said the state was moving in buses to help people leave.
“Rita took a turn to the east last night and south-west Louisiana is now in danger,” she said.
“Hurricane force winds will rip much of western Louisiana.”
National Guard and medical units were on standby. Helicopters were being positioned, and search and rescue boats from the state wildlife department were staged on high ground on the edge of Rita’s projected path. Blanco said she also asked for 15,000 more federal troops.
“Prepare your family and prepare your house,” she warned. “I’m urging Louisiana citizens to take this storm very seriously.”