HURRICANE ISSAC MAKES LANDFALL ALONG GULF COAST
John Schwartz and Campbell Robertson
NEW ORLEANS — On the eve of the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which brought widespread devastation after the colossal failure of the system built to protect the city, New Orleans on Tuesday night once again found itself facing the impending arrival of a huge and deadly storm.
Isaac was a Category 1 hurricane with sustained winds of 80 miles per hour when it made landfall at 6:45 p.m. local time just southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River, about 95 miles from New Orleans, and then wobbled westward and back out over water. Around 11 p.m., it was about 75 miles southeast of New Orleans with the same sustained winds.
The drenching and slow-moving storm was heading to the northwest and was projected to be about an hour southwest of New Orleans around 7 a.m. on Wednesday, with the peak of the surge hitting the wall at Lake Borgne between 1 and 6 a.m., the northern end of the city at Lake Pontchartrain between noon and 6 p.m., and the West Bank area near midnight.
Federal officials warned again and again that the storm, which killed 29 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, would generate high seas, intense rain and serious flooding in coastal and inland areas for days.
The hurricane will be the first test of the $14.5 billion, 133-mile ring of levees, flood walls, gates and pumps put in place after Hurricane Katrina by the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that built the defenses that failed this city catastrophically in 2005.
By all accounts, this storm is nowhere near as powerful as Katrina was, but its breadth is potentially wider, with pounding rains and surging waves expected from east of Morgan City, La., to the Mississippi-Alabama border, including New Orleans.
After coming ashore on Tuesday, the storm’s center was predicted to linger over Louisiana through Thursday morning, said Rick Knabb, the director of the National Hurricane Center, possibly slowing further from the leisurely 8-m.p.h. pace of its advance.
Forecasters continued to predict a potentially life-threatening coastal storm surge, already reported in some spots in Louisiana to be over 10 feet. Communities may be cut off for days, and flooding may result in “certain death” in areas outside the levees. “The hazards are beginning,” Dr. Knabb said. “It is going to last a long time and affect a lot of people.”
On Tuesday morning, with the blare of a warning buzzer and the rumble of big motors moving tons of steel, two halves of a massive butterfly gate started moving toward each other to close off New Orleans from the anticipated 12-foot storm surge — making history. With the closing of the new gates, this corner of Lake Borgne, which allowed waters into the city that brought down flood walls and destroyed neighborhoods seven years ago, is now cut off with a barrier nearly two miles long, and the city’s first line of defense begins 13 miles farther out than when Katrina hit.
“We are ready for this,” said Tim Doody, the president of the regional levee board covering much of the New Orleans metropolitan area, which takes over the operation of the hurricane defenses once the corps has completed them.
President Obama declared states of emergency in parts of Louisiana and Mississippi as the storm approached. “America will be there to help folks recover no matter what this storm brings,” he said at a campaign event in Ames, Iowa. “Because when disaster strikes, we’re not Democrats or Republicans first, we are Americans first.”
In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal announced on Tuesday that about 4,200 members of the National Guard had been activated and that thousands of beds were available in shelters across the state. Both he and Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu of New Orleans said teams and vehicles were ready for search and rescue efforts. Camouflage-painted Humvees could be seen on the streets of New Orleans as the National Guard made its presence known.
As the storm’s target narrowed, mandatory evacuations were lifted in low-lying parts of Alabama but were imposed in more places in Louisiana. Eight parishes ordered evacuations in certain areas, while four others urged people to leave. People in the low-lying areas of Mississippi had been ordered to evacuate, and shelters were opened all along the northern Gulf Coast. The Red Cross had opened 19 shelters in Mississippi and Alabama and 18 in Louisiana.
Along the coast between Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., the storm surge was the immediate concern, though the rain would bring its own problems soon enough. Officials reported dangerous storm surges in southeastern Louisiana, as high as 14 feet in spots.
But residents toughened by Hurricane Katrina, which tossed floating casinos across the highway, saw Isaac as more a curiosity and a nuisance than a major threat. “If it’s a 1 or a 2, most people don’t flip out,” said Claire Parker, 23.
The Mississippi Gaming Commission ordered the 12 casinos along the coast to close. As the sun set, families turned out to enjoy the grandeur of the churning ocean between the bands of rain that had begun to blow sideways. “We know it’s going to get so you can’t see your hand in front of you, but for now it’s just beautiful,” said Zachary Broussard, who was walking along the coast in Biloxi in the pelting rain.
Along the stretches of Route 90 that hug the Mississippi Coast, a curfew was in effect until 7 a.m. Late Tuesday, the police pulled over the few cars that were trying to navigate the road through the heavy winds and rain, telling drivers to seek shelter immediately.
As the wind began to whistle past the windows of City Hall in New Orleans and several officials stood in their rain jackets, Mr. Landrieu said, “We are officially into the fight, and the city of New Orleans is now on the front lines.” He urged residents to take the storm seriously, and singled out for criticism some who had gone to the shore of Lake Pontchartrain to watch the surf and otherwise enjoy themselves in a day of weather as erratic as Isaac itself.
By late Tuesday, officials reported that more than 227,000 were without power across Louisiana. Officials predicted that 15 inches of rain would fall on areas west of New Orleans by Wednesday. At the lakefront, Rene Hebert was practicing his golf swing. “It’s the best day to practice into wind — I can work on my power,” he said. “On a calm day, it’ll be no problem.”
Others at the lakefront said they were not worried about Isaac, or that they had confidence the city was in control. “I’ve seen worse,” said Marlin Cummings, who lives in eastern New Orleans, which seven years ago saw as worse as it gets.
The streets gradually cleared, and people parked on the raised “neutral ground” dividing larger streets to keep cars out of the floodwaters that can swamp the city in any heavy rainfall.
Army Corps leaders monitored the preparations from an emergency operations center at district headquarters, by the bank of the Mississippi River. Had the storm been much stronger, they would have moved into a special stormproof bunker in a warehouse at the headquarters, as it did during Hurricane Katrina and for Hurricane Gustav in 2008.
The city’s sewerage and water board readied the pumps at the city’s major drainage canals; flood walls on two of the canals failed in 2005. With Isaac on its way, gates were closed at the mouths of the canals to block storm surge, and pumps were primed to push rainwater out, said Marcia St. Martin, the executive director of the board. “We’re ready for whatever Hurricane Isaac brings us,” she said.
The pumps have been watched closely by critics of the corps, who argue that they are faulty. Ms. St. Martin said that although a small number of pumps were out of service, “these pump stations are built with redundancy” and the stations have plenty of capacity to do the job.
As for the weak flood walls lining the canals that collapsed in Katrina, those are now secondary defenses against gates that have been built since the storm. “I’m so thankful that we have those closures at the mouths of the canals,” Mr. Doody said. “If not for that, the flood walls inside of the canals would be tested again — by the entire volume of the lake, not just the water pumped from inside of the city.”
He said that the surge was smaller than the one the system was designed to withstand, but that his board would be watching more than 20 miles of flood walls that line St. Bernard Parish east and southeast of the city. “Smaller events will cause much greater flood-side erosion of the levees,” he said.
Mr. Doody joked that the storm now appeared to be so much less a threat than early projections had suggested, saying, “This will be more like a quiz than a test.”