Tropical Storm Isaac reached hurricane strength as it approached the Gulf Coast and its winds started to batter New Orleans.
Officials are expressing confidence that improved levees protecting the city will hold. They collapsed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“The hazards are beginning,” Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center, said in a telephone conference call today. “It’s going to last a long time and it’s going to affect a lot of people.”
Isaac, threatening Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, is set to strike the coast near New Orleans as early as tonight. Tomorrow is the seven-year anniversary of Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people and displaced 250,000.
Isaac’s center was about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south-southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River with top winds of 80 miles per hour, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory at 5 p.m. New York time. The storm was moving northwest at 8 mph.
While Isaac is expected to weaken after making landfall, its tropical-storm force winds extend up to 185 miles (298 kilometers) from its center, according to the hurricane center.
Rain may fall for 24 to 36 hours, and storm surges of up to 10 feet could cause flooding even after the storm has passed, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican, said at a news conference today in Baton Rouge.
“This is a serious storm,” Jindal said. “It’s important that folks take it seriously.”
Jindal previously urged Louisiana residents not protected by levees to leave. Traffic on Interstate 10, the main thoroughfare out of New Orleans, was at a standstill yesterday afternoon and was moving again today.
New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu told reporters today that he isn’t expecting a “Katrina-like event” as the hurricane is a Category 1, the lowest level on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. Katrina went ashore as a Category 3.
In Biloxi, Mississippi, water from the Gulf was spilling onto U.S. 90, where traffic moved slowly through the standing water.
In Gulfport, Mississippi, authorities ordered an evacuation of residents near the water and in low-lying areas. They were clearing the beach of curiosity seekers and swimmers. As many as 1,400 National Guard soldiers were activated, said Ryan LaFontaine, a spokesman for the city, in an interview.
“It’s a recipe for disaster out there,” LaFontaine said.
A hurricane warning was in effect from east of Morgan City, Louisiana, to the Mississippi-Alabama state border, including metropolitan New Orleans, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, a Republican, canceled mandatory evacuation orders covering portions of two counties, according to a statement.
President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Louisiana and Mississippi, making federal support available to save lives, protect public safety and preserve property. He said federal response teams are ready and urged residents to heed evacuation warnings.
“Now is not the time to tempt fate,” Obama said in a televised statement today from the White House. “Now is not the time to dismiss official warnings.”
Joanna Lewis, 52, who lives in Gentilly, a neighborhood south of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans, said she isn’t leaving. She lost her house after Katrina to nine feet of water. Lewis said she can see the new built-up levees from her doorstep, and that gives her confidence to remain.
“I can see what the levees should look like now,” she said. “They didn’t look like that before.”
She said she didn’t return home for three months after Katrina and considered moving to a place not so vulnerable to storm waters.
“What Katrina put us through, it’s almost like hurry up and run every time,” Lewis said in an interview. “I’m going to stick it out. I’m sure we’ll be OK.”
Albert Moses III, 48, who lives in a second-floor apartment in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, also said he had confidence in the levees.
“They’re gonna hold,” he said. “There’s lots of them and they’re better and stronger.”
Standing on his porch, Moses said he had enough bread, milk and orange juice to last several days, and a generator to supply electricity.
Water pushed ashore by the hurricane, known as a storm surge, may cause flood waters to reach as much as 12 feet deep in normally dry parts of southeast Louisiana and Mississippi if the peak occurs at high tide, meteorologists said. Depths could reach as much as 8 feet in Alabama and 6 feet in south-central Louisiana and the Florida Panhandle, forecasters said.
Rainfall could reach as much as 14 inches, with 20 inches in isolated areas, in southeastern Louisiana, southern Mississippi and Alabama, and extreme western Florida, according to the hurricane center.
Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans after levees protecting the city failed.
After Katrina, a $14.5 billion Greater New Orleans Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System was built with strengthened and improved levees, floodwalls, pump stations and surge barriers, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The new system “is stronger and more resilient than it has ever been in the area’s history,” capable of defending against a 100-year level storm, the Corps said.
“This is absolutely the best shape we’ve ever been in,” Susan Maclay, president of the board of commissioners of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West, said in a interview.
Maclay said Isaac is “a perfect scenario” to test the system because it may identify any flaws before a more powerful storm.
In the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, much of the neighborhood never recovered from the storm seven years ago. There is no grocery store there. Homes are empty, unkempt lots with grass and a tangle of weeds that reach about four feet high. Abandoned, decrepit homes and buildings dot the landscape, and some roads are barely navigable due to potholes and extensive damage.
“I hope the good Lord will see fit to bypass this situation and let the levees and all this new protection stand up,” said Antoine Davis, who was stocking up gas for a generator yesterday in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward.