(Bloomberg) -- The storm now approaching Louisiana is raising the ghost of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Barry could bring two feet of rain and push water levels in the Mississippi River to the highest level in almost seven decades. That will test a $14.5 billion Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System built by the Army Corps of Engineers after Katrina wrecked New Orleans in 2005.
While the city and its residents were largely calm on Friday as the latest storm moved closer, the deadly hurricane from more than a decade ago still conjures painful memories.
“It used to just be like ‘I’ll hunker down. I‘ve been through Betsy, Camille,”’ said Kip Cullen, general manager of Legacy Kitchen’s Craft Tavern at the corner of Tchoupitoulas and Girod Streets, a few blocks from the Mississippi. “Now there’s more fear. It’s like Katrina PTSD.”
Katrina’s eye came within about 23 miles (37 kilometers) of New Orleans, pushing a storm surge of more than 24 feet into the coastline east of the city. The pulse of water pushed Lake Pontchartrain ever higher and soon the U.S. faced one of its worst modern natural disasters.
New Orleans flooded and at least 1,800 people died. Television images showed terrified residents trapped on roofs and overpasses, anxious for rescue. The immediate reaction by the U.S. government dogged the administration of George W. Bush.
The devastation was so severe that three years later when Hurricane Gustav menaced the Louisiana coast, then Governor Bobby Jindal ordered the evacuation of 1 million residents along Louisiana’s southern coast, including New Orleans, that left the Crescent City surrounded by military-style roadblocks to keep people out.
In the empty city, many abandoned homes still carried the spray-painted X left by rescue teams after Katrina to designate it had been searched for bodies.
Now, as Barry approaches, there isn’t a widespread evacuation, but residents have been told to stock up on a three-day supply of food, water and medicine.
“This is definitely the most nervous I’ve been,” said Amy Ieyoub, an artist, after walking to the top of the levee in Violet, Louisiana, to check river levels. “I come out here every few hours.”
New Orleans had another close call in 2012, when Hurricane Isaac struck the coast and dropped 10 inches or more of rain. Unlike that storm, Katrina and Gustav, Barry is set to arrive when the Mississippi is still trying to absorb months of rain across the Great Plains and Midwest.
“The water levels are already super high long before the storm gets there,” said Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher at Colorado State University. “The biggest concern is the rain given that it is slow moving. They say up to 25 inches. That is a lot of rain.”
The Mississippi and its tributaries drain all or parts of 32 states and two Canadian Provinces, according to the U.S. National Park Service. The watershed is the fourth-largest in the world. For more than a year, the system has been taxed.
Since April, the contiguous U.S. has set three new records for the rainiest 12-month period going back 125 years, according to the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, North Carolina.
Like the Army Corps of Engineers, Ieyoub doesn’t expect water to overtop the levee this time. Still, “when they start using words like levee breach and storm surge, people get really nervous,” she said.
An example of how much water is flowing down the Mississippi is being played out 28 miles upstream from New Orleans. For the first time since it was built in the 1930s, the Bonnet Carre spillway had to be opened twice in a single year to take the pressure off the city.
Further upstream in Baton Rouge, the Mississippi has been at flood stage since January. Additionally, Barry could push between 3 to 6 feet of storm surge against the coast and up the river.
The Mississippi in New Orleans is forecast to crest at 19 feet, the highest since 1950, according to the National Weather Service. Earlier this week, 6 to 9 inches of rain fell in cloudbursts off the Gulf of Mexico that left city streets drenched.
Ieyoub’s house, which she moved into in 2016, is on stilts. She decided not to stock up on sandbags because if the levee does breach, there’s little that can be done at that point.
“If the water gets that high, it’s Armageddon.”
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