Though weakened and "disorganized," tropical storm Karen remains poised to become the first named storm to hit the U.S. in what has been a relatively quiet hurricane season.
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Centre in Miami, Fla. said late Friday the storm was losing power, though there is "a chance of slight strengthening" on Saturday night, by which time Karen is expected to have made landfall.
The hurricane centre, which remains open despite the partial shutdown of the U.S. government, said the storm was about 330 kilometres south-southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River and moving north-northwest at 11 km/h, with maximum sustained winds of 75 km/h.
The NHC earlier on Friday cancelled its hurricane watches for the U.S. Gulf Coast, noting the storm had become "disorganized." Tropical storm warnings and watches were in effect for areas including New Orleans and Morgan City, La.
Forecast tracks showed the storm possibly crossing the southeast Louisiana coast before veering eastward toward south Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. But forecasters cautioned that the track was uncertain.
"We are confident on a northeastward turn. Just not exactly sure where or when that turn will occur," said Rick Knabb, director of the NHC, said earlier on Friday.
In Alabama, safety workers Thursday hoisted double red flags at Gulf Shores because of treacherous rip currents. Lifeguard stands were moved off the beach to higher ground. Still, no evacuations were planned. The Bayfest music festival was set to begin Friday, and organizers said the show — with a lineup including the Zac Brown Band and R. Kelly — would go on as much as possible.
In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency, urging residents to prepare. State Emergency Management Agency director Robert Latham said local schools will decide whether to play football games. He said the southern part of the state could have tropical storm-force winds by late Friday.
“I know that Friday-night football in the South is a big thing, but I don’t think anybody wants to risk a life because of the potential winds,” Latham said.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal also declared a state of emergency, citing the possibility of high winds, heavy rain and tides. Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared an emergency for 18 counties.
Traffic at the mouth of the Mississippi River was stopped Friday morning in advance of the storm.
Bracing for landfall
The Army Corps of Engineers said it was closing a structure intended to keep storm surge out of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal in Louisiana — known locally as the Industrial Canal — where levee breaches during Hurricane Katrina led to catastrophic flooding in 2005.
Mayor David Camardelle of Grand Isle, La., an inhabited barrier island and tourist town about 100 kilometres south of New Orleans, called for voluntary evacuations as he declared an emergency Thursday afternoon.
Canadian hurricane forecasting unaffected
A spokesperson for the Canadian Hurricane Centre told CBC News that, while the agency depends partly on data from its U.S. counterpart, the National Hurricane Centre, to conduct weather modelling, that information remains available to its Canadian staff.
Louisiana officials were taking precautions while noting that forecasts show the storm veering to the east. The storm track had it likely brushing the southeastern tip of the state before heading toward the Alabama-Florida coast. And it was moving faster than last year’s Hurricane Isaac, a weak storm that stalled over the area and caused widespread flooding.
“It should make that fork right and move out very, very quickly,” said Jerry Sneed, head of New Orleans’ emergency preparedness office.
Offshore, at least two oil companies said they were relocating non-essential personnel and securing rigs and platforms.
National Weather Service spokesman Chris Vaccaro told CBC News that about 20 per cent of the agency's staff had been furloughed. But all of its local forecast centres, as well as the National Hurricane Centre, were open.
"The operational forecasters, that are issuing forecasts, watches and warnings for the protection of life and property, all of them are on duty," Vaccaro said.
In Washington, the White House said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was recalling some workers furloughed due to the government shutdown to prepare for the storm.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama was being updated about the storm. He said Obama directed his team to ensure staffing and resources are available to respond to the storm.
Hundreds of thousands of federal workers have been furloughed under the partial government shutdown. It’s unclear how many FEMA workers are being brought back.
Rain and storm surge
Tropical storm Karen is expected to bring heavy rain and a storm surge. The hurricane centre predicts between seven and 15 centimetres of rain will fall on parts of the central and eastern Gulf Coast through Sunday night.
'Hopefully, this one is just a little rain event.' — Mayor David Camardelle of Grand Isle, La.
Camardelle, whose vulnerable island is often the first to order an evacuation in the face of a tropical weather system, said the town was making sure its 10 pump stations are ready. He encouraged residents to clean out drainage culverts and ditches in anticipation of possible heavy rain and high tides.
“Hopefully, this one is just a little rain event,” Camardelle said. “We don’t need a big storm coming at us this late in the season.”
Grand Isle suffered damage from Hurricane Isaac in August 2012. Isaac clipped the mouth of the Mississippi River for its official first landfall before meandering northwest over Grand Isle and stalling inland. Though a weak hurricane, Isaac’s stall built a surge along the southeast Louisiana coast that flooded communities in neighbouring Plaquemines Parish.
Karen was expected to pass over Gulf oil and gas fields from Louisiana to Alabama, but early forecasts suggested the storm would miss the massive oil import facility at Port Fourchon, La., just west of Grand Isle, and the oil refineries that line the Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge.