New Orleans’s travel routes are being severed as airlines and railroads brace for Hurricane Isaac to strike a region not fully recovered from the devastation wrought by Katrina seven years earlier.
The city’s airport is shut today after carriers from Southwest Airlines Co., New Orleans’s busiest, to United Continental Holdings Inc., the world’s largest, rushed planes and people out of harm’s way.
“There’s an extra sensitivity about what went down during Katrina,” said Keith Gerr, a spokesman for data tracker FlightStats.com. “You’ve got airports and airlines that maybe in the past they’ve waited until the last second to cancel flights, but they’re being very proactive this time.”
Isaac’s approach also roiled train shipments because New Orleans is a junction between western carriers such as Warren Buffett’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe and eastern railroads CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern Corp. Commercial traffic on the Mississippi River, the traditional boundary for the eastern and western lines, has been essentially halted, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
The storm was upgraded to a hurricane after the crew of an Air Force Reserve monitoring craft reported winds of 75 miles per hour (120 kilometers per hour), the National Hurricane Center said in a statement at 12:20 p.m. New York time. A landfall tomorrow would be seven years to the day after the onslaught of Katrina, whose storm surge burst levees, flooding parts of the city.
Cancellations for today at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport totaled 290, according to the tally from data tracker FlightAware.com. Those accounted for the bulk of the 456 U.S. trips scrubbed as of 12:09 p.m. New York time, FlightAware said.
US Airways Group Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., JetBlue Airways Corp. and AMR Corp.’s American Airlines were among the carriers joining United and Southwest in announcing they were halting operations hours before the city decided to shut the airport.
“I believe that everything is going to be OK,” Mayor Mitchell Landrieu told reporters yesterday in New Orleans. “That does not mean you can let your guard down.”
United’s operations will be halted until the morning of Aug. 30, Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman, said yesterday in a telephone interview. Southwest will resume service on Aug. 30, said Ashley Dillon, a spokeswoman. United has 30 daily New Orleans round trips, and Southwest has 84, according to the airlines.
The New Orleans airport already accounts for 113 of the 182 U.S. flights canceled tomorrow, FlightAware said.
Other cancellations included all 24 daily round trips for Delta and five for JetBlue, spokesmen said. The Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport in Mississippi closed to air traffic, as did the Mobile, Alabama, Regional Airport and the Pensacola, Florida, International Airport.
New Orleans’s shutting of its floodgates cut rail access for carriers that include Burlington Northern, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific Corp., Kansas City Southern and Canadian National Railway Co. That convergence of track networks makes New Orleans unusual among major U.S. cities.
The railroads are working together to reroute traffic away from New Orleans, interchanging east-west cargoes in cities including Birmingham, Alabama, and Memphis, Tennessee, spokesmen said. Shipment delays varied among the railroads and ranged from 24 hours to 72 hours.
Union Pacific is the biggest U.S. railroad, followed by Burlington Northern, which is owned by Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Floodgates closed to protect the city from the hurricane’s surge waters may reopen by Thursday, permitting rail traffic, if water levels and winds have subsided, said Steve King of the New Orleans Emergency Operations Center.
“As soon as the water is down enough where we feel comfortable, one of the first things we do is open up railroads and main highways,” he said.
FedEx Corp., operator of the world’s largest cargo airline, suspended service in a Louisiana parish that is under mandatory evacuation orders and anticipated delays in air-freight service in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Ground shipping delays are expected in New Orleans and Key West, Florida.
“We’ll evaluate it moving forward based on weather conditions,” Benjamin Hunt, a spokesman, said in a telephone interview. “These things are kind of tricky.”
United Parcel Service Inc. planes that were idled have been moved from the area, said Mike Mangeot, a spokesman. UPS suspended pickups and drop-offs in dozens of postal-delivery zones.
Commercial barges that remained on the Mississippi were required to anchor two to three times more strongly than usual to prevent being torn loose in a storm and smashing into ports and other vessels, the Coast Guard said.
“As the storm makes landfall and progresses inland, we’ll be able to assess where we are with the conditions,” said Lt. Commander Michael Wolfe, a Coast Guard spokesman. “It’s really for the safety of the commerce that’s moving through.”