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By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Nervous New Orleans residents prepared to flee as Tropical Storm Barry closed in on Thursday, with forecasts of "extreme rain" and more flooding ahead of the storm's predicted landfall by early on Saturday as the first Atlantic hurricane of 2019.
Barry coalesced in the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday morning, packing maximum sustained winds of 40 miles per hour (64 kph), a day after heavy showers from the gathering storm drenched New Orleans with nearly a foot (30 cm) of rain, the National Weather Service said.
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A tropical storm warning was posted on Thursday afternoon for metropolitan New Orleans, and a hurricane warning for a stretch of the Louisiana coast south of the city. The weather service later reported winds increasing to 45 mph (72 kph), with higher gusts.
The storm swiftly disrupted oil and gas operations along the Gulf, as energy companies halted production on more than half of the region's petroleum output and evacuated nearly 200 offshore facilities and a coastal refinery.
With the brunt of the storm expected to skirt the western edge of New Orleans instead of making a direct hit, city officials refrained from ordering evacuations, urging residents to secure their property, gather supplies and shelter in place instead.
But some residents, recalling the devastation wreaked in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, which killed some 1,800 people along the Gulf, decided it was safer to leave. The threat of flooding along the Mississippi River, which winds through the heart of the city, was a major concern.
"It's really the river that has us worried," said Betsey Hazard, who lives with her husband, Jack, and their two young children a block from the Mississippi River. "They say that the river won't flood in New Orleans, but we have a 5-year-old and a 10-month-old, and we don't want to take any chances."
The Hazards said they were leaving town for the neighboring state of Mississippi.
Others flocked to supermarkets for bottled water, ice, snack foods and beer, thronging grocery outlets in such numbers that some stores ran out of shopping carts.
Throughout the city, motorists left cars parked on the raised median strips of roadways in hopes of giving their vehicles just enough extra elevation to keep them from being damaged by street flooding.
Barry was forecast to bring a coastal storm surge into the mouth of the river, pushing its height to 19 feet (5.9 m) on Saturday, the highest on record since 1950 and dangerously close to the top of the levee system protecting the city.
The Mississippi has been above flood stage for six months. Torrential downpours from the storm would only add to the flow, raising the chance of overtopping levee walls, especially downstream where barriers are lower.
Meteorologists predicted between 10 and 20 inches (25-50 cm) of rain along much of the Gulf Coast on Friday and Saturday.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell warned that 48 hours of heavy rain could overwhelm pumps designed to purge streets and storm drains of excess water in the low-lying city.
"We cannot pump our way out of the water levels that are expected to hit the city of New Orleans," Cantrell said. "We need you to understand this."
Pumps already were working at capacity after heavy rains that flooded streets on Wednesday, she said.
"The more information we get, the more concerned we are that this is going to be an extreme rain event," Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards told an afternoon news conference. "If Tropical Storm Barry becomes a hurricane, it would be the first time we've had the hurricane hit the state with rising rivers."
Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for areas of Plaquemines Parish beyond the levees southeast of the city, and for low-lying communities in Jefferson Parish, to the southwest.
High winds were less of an immediate concern.
Edwards said he expected the storm to measure a Category 1, the lowest rung on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane wind strength, when it comes ashore.
Barry will be classified a hurricane once sustained winds hit 74 mph (119 km), which could occur late on Friday or early on Saturday when its center will be near the Louisiana shoreline, the National Weather Service said. Weakening is expected after Barry moves inland.
The storm was quick to dampen tourism.
In the normally bustling French Quarter, only a couple of tables were occupied at the popular coffee-and-beignet restaurant Café du Monde.
Kate Clayson of Northampton, England, and her boyfriend, Maxx Lipman, of Nashville, Tennessee, said they arrived on Wednesday for a vacation but were planning to depart on Thursday.
"The woman at our Airbnb said the water came up to the first step of our house yesterday, so we've just decided we’d better get out," Clayson said.
(Reporting by Kathy Finn; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter and Jonathan Allen in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing by Scott Malone and Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Bill Trott and Peter Cooney)