Tropical storm brewing off U.S. Gulf Coast, likely to hit Louisiana as hurricane

(Reuters) - A storm churning in the Gulf of Mexico and aimed at water-logged New Orleans was expected to make landfall as the first Atlantic hurricane of the 2019 season by late Friday or early Saturday, forecasters said.

The storm, which forecasters said might escalate to a tropical storm by late Thursday, had maximum sustained winds of 35 miles per hour (55 kph) as of Thursday morning, the National Weather Service said.

Meteorologists predicted between 10 and 20 inches (25 and 50 cm) of rain would fall on the Gulf Coast on Friday and Saturday from West Texas through New Orleans and the Louisiana coast.

“The whole area is in for a soaking, the worst of it on Saturday,” said David Roth, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center.

The storm remained a tropical disturbance early on Thursday about 115 miles (185 km) south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, the National Hurricane Center said.

The storm will be named Barry if it strengthens into a tropical storm with winds of 39 mph or more on the Saffir–Simpson hurricane scale. It will become Hurricane Barry if it reaches wind speeds of 74 mph (119 km) as expected when it makes landfall near the mouth of the Mississippi River and just west of New Orleans.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency on Wednesday.

“The storm system will likely produce storm surge, hurricane force winds,” he said at a news conference. “No one should take this storm lightly.”

National Guard troops were in place across the state, the governor said.

U.S. oil producers on Wednesday cut nearly a third of Gulf of Mexico crude output ahead of the storm.

Fifteen production platforms and four rigs were evacuated in the north central Gulf of Mexico, according to a U.S. regulator as oil firms moved workers to safety.

New Orleans was already hit with widespread flooding on Wednesday from a weather system that might inundate the low-lying U.S. city.

The National Weather Service said the city had received 6 to 9 inches (15 to 23 cm) of rain by Thursday morning, causing dramatic flooding in the area, including on Bourbon Street in the city’s historic French Quarter.

Officials advised residents on Wednesday to stock up on emergency supplies and ordered evacuations in some vulnerable residential areas.

Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Peter

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