NEW ORLEANS • Giant storm Barry strengthened into a hurricane yesterday, dumping rain and unleashing strong winds on the Louisiana coast as most New Orleans residents huddled at home, or in bars, bracing themselves for the threat of severe flooding.
Barry was packing sustained winds of 120kmh - just above the minimum to qualify as a Category 1 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale, the National Hurricane Centre said in its storm advisory.
The impending storm could test beefed-up flood defences put in place since the 2005 calamity of Hurricane Katrina, which left much of New Orleans underwater and killed about 1,800 people.
Landfall predictions were pushed back from sunrise to late morning or early afternoon, as the storm crawled across the Gulf Coast at about 5kmh, NHC forecasters said early yesterday.
The authorities urged citizens to secure property, stock up provisions and shelter in place.
However, some nervous residents opted to flee the city, and tourism officials reported an abrupt exodus of out-of-town visitors on Friday.
Mandatory evacuations were ordered in outlying coastal areas beyond the protection of levees in neighbouring Plaquemines and Jefferson parishes south of the city.
Rain bands were already hitting the coast before sunrise and more than 62,000 homes and businesses in Louisiana were without power at 7am local time, according to tracking site PowerOutage.us.
Hawaii governor declares emergency over Maui wildfires
HONOLULU • Hawaii's governor declared an emergency on the island of Maui, where firefighters were battling a blaze that forced the evacuations of thousands of people and sent huge clouds of smoke billowing over nearby beaches.
Although most of the evacuees were later allowed to return home on Friday, the blaze more than tripled in size to spread over about 3,642ha, scorching mostly former sugarcane fields and brush.
"I am declaring our Valley Isle a disaster area for the purpose of implementing the emergency management functions as allowed by law," Governor David Ige said in a statement on Friday.
The fire in Maui, sometimes called the Valley Isle, had been 60 per cent contained by sunset but officials warned that even though the shelters were shut, they might need to reopen if more evacuations were ordered.
The authorities had also managed to contain about 35 per cent of a second, smaller fire across roughly 81ha, that had broken out north of the first near Kahului, forcing some voluntary evacuations.
This second fire was being investigated as a possible arson by the Maui Police Department, local media reported. No other details were available early yesterday.
The major blaze began in the island's central valley last Thursday, with its flames stoked by steady winds of up to 30kmh, officials said.
Thousands of residents and visitors in the communities of Maalaea and Kihei fled as a precaution, while firefighters struggling to quell the blaze used helicopters to drop water on the flames.
There were no reports of injuries or damage to buildings, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser said. The cause of the fire is being investigated.
On Twitter, the governor thanked media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who owns a property on Maui, after she opened a private road to assist officials tackling the fire.
Meteorologists warned that torrential rain - as much as 60cm in some places - could unleash severe flooding as the storm moves inland from the Gulf of Mexico, where oil and gas operations have already cut production by nearly 60 per cent.
US President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency for Louisiana on Friday, freeing up federal disaster assistance if needed.
The brunt of Barry's force was expected to skirt the western edge of New Orleans, avoiding a direct hit on a low-lying city virtually surrounded on all sides by rising waters.
But Mayor LaToya Cantrell said 48 hours of heavy downpours could overwhelm pumps designed to purge streets and storm drains of excess water.
"There is no system in the world that can handle that amount of rainfall in such a short period," Ms Cantrell said on Twitter.
The authorities were paying specially close attention to the levee system built to contain the lower Mississippi River.
The river, which winds through the heart of New Orleans, was already above flood stage from months of heavy upstream rainfall over the Midwest.
A coastal storm surge into the mouth of the Mississippi was expected to push its crest to 5.79m in New Orleans yesterday, the highest level since 1950 and dangerously close to the top of the city's levees.
New Orleans was already saturated after thunderstorms last Wednesday drenched it with 30cm of rain.
While street flooding seemed probable, the US Army Corps of Engineers insisted that significant breaching of the 6m-tall levees in New Orleans was unlikely.
Levee floodgates normally left open to allow passage of traffic were being closed, along with a giant ocean surge barrier erected after Katrina.
The level of Lake Pontchartrain, an estuary on the city's northern flank, rose by a metre on Friday, triggering closure of a floodgate on a drainage canal that breached during Katrina, officials said.
Ahead of the storm, New Orleans residents rushed to stock up on bottled water, ice, snacks and beer, thronging supermarkets and grocery stores in such numbers that some ran out of shopping carts.
Sandbags were stacked outside of hotels, shops and other businesses along Canal Street.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE