TROPICAL Storm Barry churns slowly toward Gulf Coast, prompting preparations in Louisiana

Saturday, August 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ The weather was clear and sunny on Saturday in southeastern Louisiana but sandbags were ready and people moved loose picnic tables indoors as Tropical Storm Barry crawled across the Gulf of Mexico.

The National Hurricane Center posted a tropical storm warning Saturday for the Mississippi River delta region, from Grand Isle to the mouth of the Pearl River, including New Orleans. Tropical storm watches were in effect from Morgan City eastward to Panama City, Fla.

Robert Molleda (moh-yeh-duh), a forecaster at the hurricane center in Miami, cautioned against trying to pin down anything about the storm too early.

``It's still at least 40 hours away from making landfall,'' late Sunday or early Monday, he said. ``And it's always important to remember that the hurricane or tropical storm is not just one point, but affects areas to either side of where it makes landfall.''

Some people enjoyed the beach on Saturday or went fishing, but others made preparations, just in case.

``People have been getting sandbags since yesterday, when we started putting them out,'' said Mike Deroche, head of emergency preparedness in Terrebonne Parish, 60 miles southwest of New Orleans.

Rangers at Grand Isle State Park put trash barrels and signs inside, moved picnic tables to higher ground, warned people to keep children out of the water and notified campers that the campground would be closing.

Lifeguards urged people not to even wade in the water.

``They think they can go in up to their knees and be all right, but the undertow is so strong that it will pull you out before you realize it,'' lifeguard Kim Haber said at Gulf Shores, Ala.

Rough surf kicked up by the storm killed at least 100 sea turtle hatchlings along the Alabama coast on Thursday. ``We were able to rescue at least 150 hatchlings and release them into the water,'' said Patrick Harper, biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Officials of St. Charles Parish, just southwest of New Orleans, already had declared an emergency but brightened Saturday at a forecast indicating that the storm might steer eastward, closer to Gulfport, Miss.

``That gives us a little bit of hope. But the forecast has changed so much already, and it could change again,'' said Jason Tastet, senior coordinator for the parish department of emergency preparedness.

Barry, the second named storm of the 2001 Atlantic hurricane season, was getting better organized and was expected to slowly gain strength during the weekend.

By 2 p.m. EDT Saturday, Barry was centered about 170 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River. It was moving slowly and erratically and had maximum sustained wind of about 40 mph, the hurricane center said.

It was expected to strengthen to about 70 mph, 5 mph short of hurricane strength, by the time it makes landfall, but even that could be devastating.

In June, Tropical Storm Allison dumped 20 inches of rain in Louisiana and 32 in Texas, much of it as the storm sat for days off the coast. What was left of the storm then moved east and north, causing floods as far north as Pennsylvania.

Barry already had dumped more than a foot of rain on parts of Florida before moving into the Gulf of Mexico.

It churned up six- and eight-foot waves and rip tides along Alabama's coast and _ helped by northeasterly wind and a full moon _ lifted tides 2 feet above normal on the north side of Grand Isle, Louisiana's only inhabited barrier island.

``We've got a big tidal pond on the north side, and it's filled over brim. One parking lot is flooded,'' said Steve Resweber, manager at Grand Isle State Park.

``We only had 19 overnight campers. ... Most people are smart enough not to come,'' Resweber said.

Oil companies evacuated nonessential personnel from offshore petroleum rigs on Friday.