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Tropical Storm Barry formed off the coast of Louisiana on Thursday and threatened to blow ashore as a hurricane with drenching rains that could test the flood-control improvements made in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina 14 years ago.
Forecasters said the first hurricane of the Atlantic season could hit the state's swampy southern tip on Friday, with the biggest danger posed not by the wind but by downpours that could go on for hours.
On Wednesday, with the gathering storm still out over the Gulf of Mexico, it dumped as much as 8 inches (20 centimeters) on metro New Orleans in just three hours. The deluge triggered flash flooding and raised fears about the even heavier rains on the way.
Forecaster said the storm could pour more water into the already swollen Mississippi River, possibly sending water over levees. The river has been running high for months.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared an emergency and said National Guard troops and high-water vehicles will be positioned all over the state.
"The entire coast of Louisiana is at play in this storm," he warned.
New Orleans officials asked people to keep at least three days of supplies on hand and to keep their neighborhood storm drains clear so water can move quickly.
A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans said the agency is not expecting widespread overtopping of the levees, but there are concerns for areas south of the city. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for people living near the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, at Louisiana's southeastern tip.
Plaquemines Parish made sandbags available to people in areas not under evacuations orders, as did several other communities in Louisiana and Mississippi.
The National Weather Service expects the river to rise to 20 feet (6 meters) by Saturday morning at a key gauge in the New Orleans area, which is protected by levees 20 to 25 feet (6 to 7.6 meters) high.
"We're confident the levees themselves are in good shape. The big focus is height," Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said.
Forecasters said Louisiana could see up to 12 inches (30 centimeters) of rain by Monday, with isolated areas receiving as much as 18 inches (46 centimeters).
New Orleans got an early taste Wednesday of what may be in store. Floodwaters invaded downtown hotels and businesses and turned streets into rivers, paralyzing rush-hour traffic and stalling cars. Some people paddled their way around in kayaks.
It all happened fast.
"I must have got to work about a quarter to 7," said Donald Smith, who saw his restaurant on Basin Street flood for the third time this year. "By 7:15, water was everywhere."
The city's Sewerage and Water Board said the pumping system that drains the streets was at full capacity. But the immense amount of rain in three hours would overwhelm any system, said agency director Ghassan Korban.
As the water from Wednesday morning's storms receded, people worried about what might come next.
Tanya Gulliver-Garcia was trying to make her way home during the deluge. Flooded streets turned a 15-minute drive into an ordeal lasting more than two hours.
"This is going to be a slow storm," she said. "That's what I'm concerned about."
Tourists Floyd and Missy Martin of Raleigh, North Carolina, were trying to make the best of it at a store with puddles on the floor where they were buying an umbrella, chips and peanuts, and two bottles of red wine.
"We could drown out our sorrows or make an adventure of it," Floyd Martin joked.