NEW ORLEANS – Hurricane Nate, after rushing north at a record clip and raking the Gulf Coast with light winds and heavy rains Saturday, made landfall just after darkness fell at the mouth of the Mississippi River, in the latest of a series of deadly storms this season.
Officials repeatedly warned residents to take the storm seriously, in a repeat of a drill that caused thousands of evacuations from Louisiana in August. By early evening Saturday, Nate had maximum wind speeds of 90 mph and threats of storm surge up to 11 feet. Mandatory evacuations were put in place for parts of New Orleans, and communities across Mississippi and Alabama opened shelters for residents.
Nate has already been blamed for 25 deaths in Central America as it swept through the Gulf of Mexico last week. It is the ninth hurricane to form in the Atlantic this season, which is the highest total since the infamous 2012 season that featured Hurricane Sandy.
Here, longtime residents, especially those who had survived Katrina in 2005, seemed to be listening, stocking up on water, food and gasoline. But on Saturday afternoon and into the evening, the streets in the French Quarter were full of tourists.
Brenda Rushton from Toronto laughed joyfully as she took shelter under a Bourbon Street balcony, pretending to give a news update on Nate to her two sisters.
“It’s on my bucket list to be in a hurricane,” the 55-year-old exclaimed. The women spent the morning drinking hurricane cocktails at Pat O’Brien’s down the street. They planned to ride out the rest of Nate from their hotel bar.
“You party till you can’t party any more in New Orleans,” said native New Orleanian Kay Hayes. Earlier Saturday morning, she was directing several thousands of people on a breast cancer cure walk. “This is who we are. We’ll take care of each other.”
That sentiment is what New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu tried to encourage as he declared a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew for the city, warning residents and the 40,000 visitors to stay inside. That curfew was canceled only 90 minutes into it, after the National Weather Service changed the city’s forecast to a tropical storm, rather than hurricane, warning.
“This storm should not bring us anything we are not prepared to handle, presuming we all cooperate,” he said Saturday morning from a new hurricane-hardened fire station in the rural eastern portion of the city. Landrieu urged residents to avoid the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, which sometimes draws daredevil surfers after a storm. He earlier declared an evacuation from three neighborhoods that lie outside the levees that protect the rest of the city.
“This is one of the most vulnerable areas of the city,” he said under glowering skies. “You are at high risk if you are on this side of the flood wall . . . and you’ve got an acute risk tonight.”
But Landrieu’s rhetoric had limited impact; Nancy Bell, president of the Venetian Isles homeowners association, said about half of the 275 homes there remained occupied.
“In Katrina, we had an 18-foot storm surge here, and water didn’t get into my main living area,” said the 25-year resident who elevated her house after Katrina, put up hurricane shutters and has a generator with extra fuel. “From what they’re saying, this is likely to be a hit-and-run storm. It would take you longer to get away.”
Landrieu said although 11 of the 120 city’s drainage pumps were not operating, it is enough to keep most of the city dry. The city did not expect major rainfall totals, in part because Nate was tracking east of the city.
Officials have been in contact with every nursing home in New Orleans, he said, to ensure each one has generators and fuel. The city has also made a major sweep of known homeless encampments.
The U.S. Coast Guard suspended port operations from New Orleans to Mobile. Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a midday news conference that he spoke with President Donald Trump, who promised him that federal resources were at the ready. Trump had signed a pre-storm emergency declaration to empower FEMA to coordinate relief efforts. The state National Guard, meanwhile, has mobilized 1,300 troops and positioned high-water vehicles, boats and other vehicles throughout the area.
Despite the governor’s warning to hunker down by 3 p.m. local time, traffic on Interstate 10 through the city was busy throughout the afternoon rain as the outer bands of the hurricane swept into the city.
At the Flying J truck stop in Gulfport, Mississippi, cashier Cindy Fitzhugh yelled, “I need some help,” as a line of customers stocking up on supplies stretched toward the back of the store. Fitzhugh lost everything she owned during Hurricane Katrina, so the approaching storm has her on edge.
So far, she has been too busy working to make preparations at home. For now, her biggest priority is making sure the store’s cooler stays stocked with ice and everyone else gets what they need quickly so they can get home safely.
“I get off soon, I think, I hope,” she said, laughing nervously.
Outside, a brisk breeze blew and gray skies prevailed as friends Zack Moore and Coley Oberg filled their four-wheelers with gas, not because of the storm but because it’s Saturday.
“We’ve got plenty of beer and moonshine in the fridge, so we’ll be fine,” Moore said, laughing.
The low wind speed reassures coastal residents like Moore and Oberg, who liken Nate more to a thunderstorm than a serious threat. Back in New Orleans, Blondy Moore and Iram Chedikah struggled to carry a newly purchased generator into their home in the Gentilly neighborhood in the afternoon.
“I’ve been through Katrina, and all this flooded,” Moore said, indicating her street. “It was a major inconvenience.”
She and Chedikah also bought 10 life jackets, one for each of the family members who will shelter with them. Moore does not know how to swim.
Chedikah, a pastor, said prayer is also high on their list of preparations. “Prayer is number one,” he said. “I’ve been praying for the city of New Orleans. For the Sewage and Water Board. And for our political leaders, that they will make the right decisions to keep New Orleans safe.”