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Rising waters raise fears in New Orleans

Lauren Robinson walks through water in the uptown area of New Orleans on Monday.
Lauren Robinson walks through water in the uptown area of New Orleans on Monday.
Alex Brandon, Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — The Army Corps of Engineers closed a gate on a suburban canal as heavy rains lashed the flood-prone city, raising fears that climbing waters threatened to top the walls holding them back.

After more than 8 inches of rain fell on parts of New Orleans by late afternoon, Mayor Ray Nagin shut City Hall early, and schools also closed. People were asked to stay indoors until the flood potential subsided. More rain was expected overnight.

The Harvey Canal in Jefferson Parish was one of several in the area placed under new safety guidelines after Hurricane Katrina's flood waters breached two New Orleans canals in August 2005, causing catastrophic flooding.

The corps has worked to strengthen the canal, about five miles from downtown, but engineers worried that water being driven into it might lead to flooding. The area around the canal includes homes and businesses.

Unlike the canal walls that broke during Katrina, the walls on the Harvey Canal are not considered at threat of being breached by rising waters, said Chris Accardo, the corps' operations chief.

"The gates were closed to minimize seepage and overtopping," he said.

Engineers want to be sure "that we don't put pressure" on the flood walls, said Amanda Jones, a corps spokeswoman.

Water accumulated quickly in some older neighborhoods, a reminder of the city's vulnerability to storms and reliance on a complicated system of pumps and canals for drainage.

Water nearly got into the Prytania Theater in the Uptown neighborhood, a cultural icon and favorite refuge for Ignatius J. Reilly, the antihero in John Kennedy Toole's novel "A Confederacy of Dunces," said Eric Ramstead, the theater's manager.

Robert Ricks, a lead forecaster with the National Weather Service in Slidell, said that a flood watch was extended to midnight Monday and that some areas could expect 10 inches or more of rain.

Despite the flooding potential, the rain also offered relief to parts of Louisiana that have been abnormally dry. Until Monday's drenching, rainfall for New Orleans was about 11 inches below normal for the year.

The scattered showers and thunderstorms also came as a blessing to other drought-stricken areas of the Southeast on Monday. Still, climatologists say it will take more than a few scattered storms to pull the region out of a record drought.

Rainfall in Atlanta is almost 17 inches below normal for the year, and state officials have warned that a north Georgia reservoir that supplies more than 3 million people with water could be depleted within three months.

Almost one-third of the Southeast is covered by an "exceptional" drought — the worst drought category.

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