NEW ORLEANS - Hurricane Isaac made landfall in southeast Louisiana Tuesday night, and as it bore down on New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities, officials braced for heavy rains, flooding and damaging winds.
Isaac, upgraded from tropical storm to Category 1 hurricane earlier Tuesday, touched land in Plaquemines Parish, about 90 miles southeast of New Orleans at about 7 EDT before heading back over the Gulf of Mexico. Another landfall was expected within two hours. The storm system, which could dump up to 20 inches of rain in some areas, could cause major flooding as a storm surge pushes water from the Gulf into coastal cities.
Wind gusts of more than 80 mph extended 60 miles from the slow-slogging storm's center, with winds of nearly 40 mph extending up to 185 miles.
INTERACTIVE: Isaac on a similar path to Hurricane Katrina
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New Orleans, devastated by Hurricane Katrina nearly seven years ago to the day, was reporting 60 mph winds and drenching rains. Mayor Mitch Landrieu said about 1,000 National Guard troops are positioned in the city, working with police, firefighters and standing by for rescue operations. "Your city is secure,'' he said.
The National Weather Service issued a warning of "life-threatening flooding" possible outside hurricane protection levees and in areas around Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas. The warning said sections of west Jefferson, east St. Charles and lower Lafourche hurricane protection levees could be topped. Areas outside hurricane protection levees will be severely inundated, it said.
"People not heeding evacuation orders in single-family, one- or two-story homes could face certain death," the hurricane center said, urging residents who don't evacuate to "take along a life jacket and ax to chop through the roof in the event severe flooding occurs."
"We're going to see heavy rain and serious winds," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in Baton Rouge. "The biggest challenge is going to be the rain and making sure the pumps work."
The fate of New Orleans rests largely on a web of pumps and outfall canals capable of pumping massive amounts of water from city streets. The pumps are part of a billion-dollar U.S. Army Corp of Engineers project constructed after the 2005 storm surge from Hurricane Katrina rushed into the city's pumping stations and overwhelmed the system. Multiple breaches caused the city to flood, leading to hundreds of drownings and damaged neighborhoods.
By Tuesday afternoon, engineers had closed all 127 floodgates sealing the 200 miles of perimeter around the metro area of New Orleans, hoping to stop water from the surging Gulf.
As Isaac's outer bands began bending trees and lashing rain across the city, those who chose to stay battened down homes, picked up supplies and snuck in last-minute trips to local bars. Most stores throughout New Orleans started to close shortly after noon, and residents parked cars on grassy areas in the middle of streets, known as "neutral grounds," to keep them out of flooded streets.
Jim Rehkoph evacuated when Katrina hit, and the floods that followed the storm destroyed his home and most of his belongings. After moving to another house, built 12 feet above ground in the same Lakeview neighborhood - he's staying put. But bracing for a hurricane every few years is tiring. "I should sell my house and move,'' he said. "But where am I going to go at 60 years old?"
In other low-lying neighborhoods near rising Lake Pontchartrain, many homes were empty by Tuesday afternoon. Some residents who remained showed little fear of the approaching hurricane.
Dean Marshall, 49, stepped into Seminole Grocery for cigarettes and beer, then returned to his apartment. Marshall said he has endured many storms and is confident flood protections installed since Katrina devastated the city would hold back the water this time. "I'm not worried at all," he said. "We're going to ride it out."
Scores of flyers weren't coming in, or leaving. Flights to and from New Orleans were canceled Tuesday, and United and Southewest said operations would be halted until Thursday. United has 30 daily New Orleans round trips, and Southwest has 84. Flights at other airports along the northern Gulf Coast also are feeling Issac's pinch. Already, more than 1,300 cancellations have been reported in Florida. That number could approach 2,000 once the New Orleans and northern Gulf Coast disruptions are factored in. Most airlines have waived fees for rebooking flights canceled because of Isaac.
On the Alabama coast, Isaac began pelting the shore with intermittent downpours - one moment it was dry, and the next brought rain blowing sideways in a strong breeze. In Mississippi, beachfront casinos shut down as a road flooded and residents hurried to shelters. Biloxi, Miss., Police Chief John Miller warned that any motorists caught on the road until 7 a.m. can expect to be pulled over. Officials there were worried about flooding and the tide expected to start coming in around 1 a.m., he said. "People need to remain vigilant - and off the roads," Miller said in a statement.
Officials were preparing for the worst.
After touring much of the Mississippi coast Tuesday, Gov. Phil Bryant said the storm surge will clearly be a problem. Many sections of Highway 90 and other beachfront roads repaired after Katrina were already pooling with water hours before Isaac was set to come ashore. "The water is rising more rapidly than the Weather Service had predicted," he said.
During a visit to Gulfport , Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate worried that coastal residents were not fully appreciating the damage Isaac could do. Fugate, who headed Florida's emergency management division when the state was hit by four major hurricanes in 2004, said Isaac's slow approach could bring flood-producing rains for days and prolonged periods of tornadoes.
"We could see impacts ... well away from the coast," Fugate said.
Search-and-rescue teams - including 48 boat teams deployed to areas prone to flooding and in direct path of the storm - have been mobilized, and Louisiana officials have asked teams from Texas and six other states to be on standby. Power crews, linemen and tree-trimmers are ready to restore power as quickly as possible if there are outages. Damage assessments, including aerial surveillance, could begin as early as Friday, Jindal said.
Louisiana has mobilized 40 "pods" in the southern part of the state and 20 in northern Louisiana - each designed to feed 5,000 people, Jindal said.
By 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 62,000 homes and businesses in Louisiana, including nearly 22,000 in New Orleans, had lost power, Entergy reported.The company has 3,750 workers outside the area on standby, says spokesman Philip Allison said. Some crews responded to scattered outages until winds kicked up, making it unsafe for workers in bucket trucks, he said.
Across the region, schools and government offices have closed, hospitals and nursing homes have been evacuated and entire towns have been told to leave for higher ground. Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans closed outpatient services and rescheduled elective surgeries. The hospital doesn't plan to move patients unless a storm is predicted to reach Category 3. Spokesman Susan Kaufmann said the facility has stocked up on food, medical supplies, emergency communications equipment and additional back-up power generators. After evacuating patients following Katrina and closing for several months for storm repairs, "we're highly prepared and ready to go," Kaufmann said.
The Interim Louisiana State University Public Hospital in New Orleans, which normally houses about 170 patients on site and 29 psychiatric patients at another facility, began preparing in earnest once it was clear Isaac was going to enter the Gulf of Mexico. Tuesday morning, 500 staffers and doctors showed up, preparing for a three-day stay. Patients who were able to be discharged were sent home and off-site psychiatric patients were sent to a state facility in Pineville, La. Procedures not considered emergencies, such as elective surgeries, were canceled until Friday. The hospital is ready, due in part to lessons learned from Katrina, CEO Roxane Townsend said. "We've been hardened to be able to with stand up to a Category 4 hurricane."
About 1,400 state residents have sought shelter outside their homes, Jindal said. Louisiana has about 7,500 available beds in state shelters, but as of Tuesday morning, only 460 were occupied.
Early Tuesday, some of the first evacuees from New Orleans arrived in Shreveport, including 150 students from Dillard University, who were supposed to start school Monday. Instead, those who didn't have family or friends nearby, loaded onto charter buses at 5 p.m. Monday, arriving in Shreveport at about 3 a.m., said Jerald Bowman, a Dillard administrator.
An exodus out of New Orleans made for bumper-to-bumper traffic with long lines at gas stations, some of which were out of gas. "It was almost like pandemonium," Bowman said. Some will stay at Centenary College gymnasium, others at a Red Cross shelter.
Nigerian Ezinne Eziyi, 20, hadn't experienced a hurricane before, but was considering the evacuation and impromptu trip to Shreveport a learning opportunity. "I'm trying to make the best out of it," she said.
Many Louisiana residents of the low-lying coast left boarded-up homes for inland shelter while some in New Orleans were torn between fleeing the metro area and trusting in a system that failed famously under Katrina.
"I find it eerie and ironic that it's landing on the exact day," said Timolynn Sams, a New Orleans community activist who chose to ride out the storm at a friend's house across the river in Jefferson Parish. "It's also a reminder. Katrina will always be a part of us. It's etched in our history, as memorable as Mardi Gras."
Officials were concerned that residents would get complacent and decide not to evacuate or take precautions. President Obama urged Louisiana residents to follow officials' instructions regarding the approach of Isaac.
"Now is not the time to tempt fate, now is not the time to dismiss official warnings," Obama said. "You need to take this seriously."
Obama issued an emergency declaration for areas of Mississippi under threat of rain and high winds. The declaration frees up federal resources to help state and local agencies dealing with the storm and its aftermath and makes federal support available to save lives, protect public health and safety and preserve property in coastal areas.
Along the coast of Alabama, some cities amended evacuation orders as the storm tracked west of the state. The coastal city of Orange Beach didn't plan to order evacuations unless the storm's trajectory shifted, Mayor Tony Kennon said, and most residents stayed put.
Bands of rain moved across the area Tuesday morning, alternating with periods of bright sunshine.
Mary and Stillman Knight, who have owned an Orange Beach home for 22 years, planned to ride out the storm. "They finished installing our new hurricane shutters yesterday," Mary Knight said. "It was fortuitous."
Knight said she and her husband, a real estate developer, dealt with many small hurricanes at a home they owned in Montrose, Ala. "You lose four-five days of your life because you're getting ready for the worst storm whether it comes or not," she said. "It's hard to think about much of anything else. You never know until the last minute exactly where it's going to go. Every hurricane is exhausting."
As heavy dark clouds moved over Mobile, things seemed less frenzied than Monday.
"The weather today is really not that bad," said Brandon Harper, 36, gassing up at a Texaco on Spring Hill Avenue. "It turned west toward Louisiana, and when it did that, we stopped worrying as much."
Nancy Isaacson, 59, of Waveland, Miss., lost everything except for a pair of blue lamps when Katrina decimated Waveland along with much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She's staying across the railroad tracks from her house at a friend's place in a northern part of Waveland.
"It's kind of scary leaving the house, but it'll be OK," Isaacson said. "It'll survive. This hurricane is upsetting, but not devastating."
Isaacson is no stranger to survival. Four years after Katrina, her older son, Kevin, was killed in a motorcycle accident. Nineteen days later, her husband left her. One year, one month and one day after that, her younger son, Chris, was killed. "I've had my share of tragedy," she said.
Tony Mattina understands the power of a hurricane. When Katrina tore through Biloxi, Miss., his parents, grandparents and sister lost their homes. As he glanced at still-empty lots across the street from his home, Mattina said so many others endured similar experiences that there is no worry of hurricane complacency.
"Every day that goes by, there's always a reference to Katrina," said Messina, 49, as he boarded up his house. "There are still people living in temporary housing. There is still so much missing from Katrina. So I think we've done everything we can to prepare."
Although Isaac's approach on the eve of the Katrina anniversary invited obvious comparisons, the storm is nowhere near as powerful as Katrina, which reached Category 5 status with winds of nearly 160 mph and made landfall as a Category 3 storm.
Isaac left 24 dead in Haiti and the Dominican Republic but left little damage in the Florida Keys as it blew past. It promised a soaking but little more for Tampa, where the planned start of the Republican National Convention on Monday was pushed back because of the storm.
Isaac is the fourth hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, following Chris, Ernesto and Gordon. A typical season sees six hurricanes. Preseason forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called for four to eight hurricanes, while Colorado State University forecasters called for five hurricanes.
None of the other three hurricanes hit the USA, although Ernesto did make landfall in Mexico on Aug. 7.