New Orleans and Gulf Coast hunker down as Hurricane Nate nears

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The U.S. Gulf Coast braced for Hurricane Nate to make landfall east of New Orleans as a Category 2 storm on Saturday evening, threatening parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama with torrential rain, flooding and winds of 100 miles per hour.

Nate, the fourth major storm to strike the United States in less than two months, killed at least 30 people in Central America before entering the warm waters of the Gulf and bearing down on the U.S. South.

The hurricane should make landfall as early as 8 p.m. Saturday (0100 GMT Sunday), New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. Low-lying southeastern Louisiana, just south of the city, was the likely target, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

16 PHOTOS
New Orleans prepares for Tropical Storm Nate
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New Orleans prepares for Tropical Storm Nate
Residents fill sandbags in preparation for tropical storm Nate in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
A view of the pumping station at the end of the 17th street canal is seen as the city prepares for tropical storm Nate in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
The end of the London Avenue pump station is seen with the city skyline in the background as the city prepares for tropical storm Nate in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
Members of the New Orleans Fire Department fill sandbags in preparation for Tropical Storm Nate in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 06: Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans address the media as the city prepares for Tropical Storm Nate on October 6, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Nate is expected to become a Catagory 1 Hurricane as it enters the Gulf of Mexico this weekend. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 06: New Orleans residents fill sand bags in preparation for Tropical Storm Nate on October 6, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Nate is expected to become a Catagory 1 Hurricane as it enters the Gulf of Mexico this weekend. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 06: New Orleans residents fill sand bags in preparation for Tropical Storm Nate on October 6, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Nate is expected to become a Catagory 1 Hurricane as it enters the Gulf of Mexico this weekend. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 06: A view of the pumping station at the end of the 17th street canal is seen as New Orleans prepares for Tropical Storm Nate on October 6, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Nate is expected to become a Catagory 1 Hurricane as it enters the Gulf of Mexico this weekend. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 06: Sand bags are place atop the levey near the pumping station at the end of the 17th street canal as New Orleans prepares for Tropical Storm Nate on October 6, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Nate is expected to become a Catagory 1 Hurricane as it enters the Gulf of Mexico this weekend. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 06: New Orleans residents fill sand bags in preparation for Tropical Storm Nate on October 6, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Nate is expected to become a Catagory 1 Hurricane as it enters the Gulf of Mexico this weekend. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 06: New Orleans residents fill sand bags in preparation for Tropical Storm Nate on October 6, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Nate is expected to become a Catagory 1 Hurricane as it enters the Gulf of Mexico this weekend. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 06: New Orleans residents fill sand bags in preparation for Tropical Storm Nate on October 6, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Nate is expected to become a Catagory 1 Hurricane as it enters the Gulf of Mexico this weekend. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 06: A view of the pumping station at the end of the 17th street canal is seen as New Orleans prepares for Tropical Storm Nate on October 6, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Nate is expected to become a Catagory 1 Hurricane as it enters the Gulf of Mexico this weekend. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 06: A view of the pumping station at the end of the 17th street canal is seen as New Orleans prepares for Tropical Storm Nate on October 6, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Nate is expected to become a Catagory 1 Hurricane as it enters the Gulf of Mexico this weekend. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 06: Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans address the media as the city prepares for Tropical Storm Nate on October 6, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Nate is expected to become a Catagory 1 Hurricane as it enters the Gulf of Mexico this weekend. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
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“We’re in the fight now. The storm is on us,” Landrieu told reporters at a briefing on Saturday afternoon, adding that conditions were expected to rapidly deteriorate.

Still a Category 1 hurricane, Nate was approaching the mouth of the Mississippi River at 4 p.m. Central time, moving north-northwest at 23 mph, the NHC said.

Maximum sustained winds were hovering at about 90 mph, with higher gusts, but the hurricane could still strengthen to Category 2 before landfall.

The NHC issued a hurricane warning from Grand Isle, Louisiana to the Alabama-Florida border. A state of emergency was declared for more than two dozen Florida counties and for the states of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

New Orleans, about 60 miles (97 km) north of Grand Isle, evacuated some residents from areas outside its levee system as the storm approached. The winds could cause significant power outages in the city, Landrieu said.

Landrieu declared a mandatory curfew in the city from 7 p.m. Saturday to 7 a.m. Sunday, and urged residents and an estimated 40,000 visitors to shelter in place overnight, when the worst conditions are expected.

"We have been through this many, many times. There is no need to panic," Landrieu told reporters, alluding in part to Hurricane Katrina, which triggered severe flooding in New Orleans and killed hundreds of people in August 2005.

But residents of the city known as the "Big Easy" were taking Nate in stride. At a Lowe's hardware store in the St. Roch area of New Orleans, there were short lines around midday and plentiful supplies of propane, generators and plywood.

18 PHOTOS
Tropical Storm Nate ravages Central America
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Tropical Storm Nate ravages Central America
Dogs sit on the shore of the Masachapa river, flooded by heavy rains by Tropical Storm Nate in the outskirts of Managua, Nicaragua October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas
People in a neighborhood are evacuated due to the danger of a mudslide during heavy rains by Tropical Storm Nate in Alajuelita, Costa Rica October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate
The flooded Tiribi river is seen during heavy rains of Tropical Storm Nate that affects the country in San Jose, Costa Rica October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate
A resident watches the rising waves in Masachapa beach during heavy rains due to Tropical Storm Nate in the city of Masachapa, about 60km from the city of Managua on October 5, 2017. A tropical storm sliding north along Central America Thursday has unleashed heavy rains killing at least nine people in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, with forecasters predicting it could strengthen into a hurricane headed for the United States. / AFP PHOTO / INTI OCON (Photo credit should read INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images)
A men cleans a street flooded by Tiribi river during heavy rains of Tropical Storm Nate that affects the country in San Jose, Costa Rica October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate
Residents look at the floodings of the Masachapa River following the passage of Tropical Storm Nate in the city of Masachapa, about 60km from the city of Managua on October 5, 2017. A tropical storm sliding north along Central America Thursday has unleashed heavy rains killing at least nine people in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, with forecasters predicting it could strengthen into a hurricane headed for the United States. / AFP PHOTO / INTI OCON (Photo credit should read INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images)
Residents look at the floodings of the Masachapa River following the passage of Tropical Storm Nate in the city of Masachapa, about 60km from the city of Managua on October 5, 2017. A tropical storm sliding north along Central America Thursday has unleashed heavy rains killing at least nine people in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, with forecasters predicting it could strengthen into a hurricane headed for the United States. / AFP PHOTO / INTI OCON (Photo credit should read INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images)
Workers clear rubble from a road following the passage of Tropical Storm Nate in the city of El Crucero, about 20km from the city of Managua on October 5, 2017. A tropical storm sliding north along Central America Thursday has unleashed heavy rains killing at least nine people in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, with forecasters predicting it could strengthen into a hurricane headed for the United States. / AFP PHOTO / INTI OCON (Photo credit should read INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images)
Dogs stand near on a road partially collapsed by heavy rains of Tropical Storm Nate that affects the country in El Llano de Alajuelita, Costa Rica October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate
A resident look at damage caused by heavy rains of Tropical Storm Nate on Masachapa river in outskirts of Managua, Nicaragua October 5,2017.REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas
A resident stands on the shore of the Masachapa river, flooded by heavy rains by Tropical Storm Nate in the outskirts of Managua, Nicaragua October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas
Mayor's workers repairs Pan-American highway damaged by heavy rains by tropical storm Nate in Rivas, Nicaragua October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas
A damaged boat is pictured on the shore of San Juan del Sur Bay after tropical storm Nate in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua October 6,2017.REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas
Local residents cross a river flooded by heavy rains by Tropical Storm Nate in Nandaime town, Nicaragua October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas
People in a neighborhood are evacuated due to the danger of a mudslide during heavy rains by Tropical Storm Nate in Alajuelita, Costa Rica October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate
View of damages caused by the passage of Tropical Storm Nate, near Goascoran, in Valle department, Honduras on October 6, 2017. Tropical Storm Nate gained strength as it headed toward popular Mexican beach resorts and ultimately the US Gulf coast after dumping heavy rains in Central America that left at least 22 people dead. / AFP PHOTO / ORLANDO SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)
A boy collects wood from a damaged, stranded boat in San Juan del Sur beach, following the passage of Tropical Storm Nate, in Rivas some 140km from Managua, Nicaragua, on October 6, 2017 Tropical Storm Nate gained strength as it headed toward popular Mexican beach resorts and ultimately the US Gulf coast after dumping heavy rains in Central America that left at least 22 people dead. / AFP PHOTO / INTI OCON (Photo credit should read INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images)
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"They don't start boarding up until it's a Category 3," said employee Paula Clemons. "We're used to floods. Comes with the territory."

That said, for some residents of New Orleans, memories of Katrina and Hurricane Betsy in 1965 were still vivid.

By Saturday afternoon, as Nate's outer band pelted sheets of rain on the city, residents had filled 13,000 sandbags at a fire hall on Elysian Fields Drive, just one of five such sandbag depots in the city.

"I've been through Betsy and Katrina. Ain't no way they're going to stop this water," said Antoine Turner, 55, as he heaved sandbags into his half-ton truck, hoping to protect a building where he was preparing to open a soul food restaurant. "Best thing to do is just pray."

In Belle Chasse, located on a slip of land that follows the last bend of the Mississippi River as it flows into the Gulf, Derrick Ulloa, 27, and Ryan Hunt, 28, faced a 20-foot concrete wall designed to keep the Mississippi River off their doorsteps.

"We're not worried about it," said Hunt, as he and Ulloa organized jerry cans of gasoline to power a generator that will keep their fridges and an air conditioner running through the storm.

ALABAMA BRACES

After hitting the U.S. Gulf Coast, the storm is likely to veer to the northeast and cut through Alabama, the state likely to be hit hardest. Republican Governor Kay Ivey urged residents in areas facing heavy winds and storm surges to take precautions.

Between four and eight inches of rain will fall from far southern Mississippi and northern and western Alabama to northern Georgia, middle and eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina and the Virginia Panhandle, AccuWeather forecast.

Nate will mark the fourth major storm to slam the United States in the current hurricane season, following Harvey, Irma and Maria, which devastated Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, respectively.

But as a Category 1 or 2, the weakest in the five-category ranking used by meteorologists, Nate may not pack the same punch as its predecessors.

Major shipping ports across the central U.S. Gulf Coast were closed to inbound and outbound traffic on Saturday, as Nate intensified and storm surges of up 11 feet were expected at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The storm has curtailed 92 percent of daily oil production and 77 percent of daily natural gas output in the Gulf of Mexico, more than three times the amount affected by Harvey.

Workers had been evacuated from 301 platforms and 13 rigs as of Saturday, said the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

Before heading north into the Gulf, Nate brushed Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, home to beach resorts such as Cancun and Playa del Carmen, the NHC said.

The storm doused Central America with heavy rains on Thursday, killing at least 16 people in Nicaragua, 10 in Costa Rica, two in Honduras and two in El Salvador.

Thousands were forced to evacuate their homes and Costa Rica's government declared a state of emergency.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee, Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Oswaldo Rivas in Managua, Erwin Seba and Gary McWilliams in Houston; Editing by Matthew Lewis, Diane Craft and Bill Rigby)

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