July 12 (UPI) -- As Barry strengthened Thursday and inched closer to shore, residents in the Gulf states were rushing to prepare ahead of the storm's expected landfall on Saturday.
The National Hurricane Center said in its 1 p.m. update Friday Barry was located 100 miles southeast of Morgan City, La. It had maximum sustained winds of 65 mph and was moving west-northwest at 5 mph. A hurricane warning is in effect from Intracoastal City to Grand Isle -- and a tropical storm warning covers downtown New Orleans, Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas, the center said.
While New Orleans has not issued a mandatory evacuation yet, Mayor LaToya Cantrell held a press conference with local officials to warn residents of the incoming threat and to declare an emergency. Extreme flooding related to the storm had already sparked a flash flood emergency as high waters inundated parts of the city Wednesday.
Cantrell stressed that residents need a plan for the approaching storm, whether that is to shelter in place or to evacuate the city. Due to the time the storm is expected to hit and the fact it's forecast to be a potent tropical storm at the time of landfall, the city is not issuing mandatory or voluntary evacuations.
"Sheltering in place is our strategy," Cantrell told reporters, adding that the city wouldn't call for evacuations unless the storm was Category 3 force or stronger.
AccuWeather meteorologists warn the biggest threat from the storm will not be the wind, but the heavy rainfall that could spark widespread flooding. The tropical storm forecast is on the Saffir-Simpson scale, which uses only sustained wind speeds to determine the category.
Officials urged residents to be prepared for the worst during Thursday's press conference. People shouldn't be concerned with whether Barry is a tropical storm or hurricane, National Weather Service representative Benjamin Schott cautioned. The number one threat is rainfall, he said.
President Donald Trump tweeted on Thursday evening that everyone should prepare for the coming storm and heed the direction of all officials. Later in the evening, Trump issued an emergency disaster declaration for Louisiana.
Numerous local officials urged residents to stay home, check that they have supplies to last for at least three days and make sure neighborhood storm drains are clear ahead of the storm.
Store shelves were already empty in New Orleans late Wednesday, as customers bought out bottled water at one local store.
The city, which is no stranger to tropical storms and flood threats, is on high alert for the growing threat. The rain totals will likely increase over the weekend. People in areas to the east of the landfall point, which is expected in southwestern Louisiana, are expected to see the heaviest rain this weekend, with 20-plus inches possible in spots. This threat includes New Orleans.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency on Wednesday and followed that up on Thursday by authorizing the activation of 3,000 members of the state National Guard.
"This is going to be a significant weather event, and if you haven't already done so, the time to prepare is NOW," he said on Twitter. "It is critical that you monitor updates and heed the advice of local authorities."
The Mississippi River is projected to reach its highest level in nearly 70 years, as the river is expected to crest at 19 feet on Saturday, just below major flood stage. The levee system is facing its biggest test since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.
Levees in New Orleans are able to protect the city from surges up to 20 feet, and some parts of the levees actually extend to a height of 25 feet, Ricky Boyett, spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers in the New Orleans District, told The New York Times. This could be a major test for the levee system.
The pumps are working at optimal capacity, but Cantrell said the pumps might not be able to handle the water levels if heavy rainfall hits.
A state of emergency remains in effect in Louisiana ahead of the storm. Mississippi and Texas state officials also urge residents to prepare for the storm.
On Wednesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told reporters the state has mobilized several departments ahead of the strengthening storm's expected landfall. Texas activated the Task Force 1 with four high-water rescue boat squads ready and nearly 700 Department of Public Safety officers on standby for possible deployment.
The coastal area of Mississippi is under a flood watch through Sunday morning.