NEW ORLEANS – Hurricane Isaac was downgraded Wednesday to a tropical storm but continued to pound Louisiana with heavy rains and damaging winds.
- Eileen Blass, USA TODAY
Heavy rains and strong winds whip through New Orleans on Wednesday, as forecasters predict the threat of major flooding will last through the night.
Isaac started losing strength earlier in the day, and was carrying maximum sustained winds of 60 mph late Wednesday evening, the National Hurricane Center reported. As of 11 p.m. ET, the storm was located about 15 miles south of Baton Rouge and 70 miles west-by-northwest of New Orleans. It was moving to the northwest at 6 mph. The highest official rainfall total so far from the storm was 17 inches recorded in New Orleans, though an unofficial total of 22.5 inches was reported in Arabi, La.
Isaac could become a tropical depression Thursday, when winds drop below 39 mph, the hurricane center predicts.
Despite the downgrade in strength, officials across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama dealt Wednesday with rescuing people who had not taken the storm warnings seriously. Thousands of customers coped with power outages, including more than half a million customers in Louisiana. Low-lying Plaquemines Parish, La., was hard hit with flooding that threatened to trap residents. Parts of U.S. Highway 90 were flooded out in Gulfport, Miss. One confirmed death in the region was reported so far.
In Vermilion Parish, La., a 36-year-old man fell to his death after climbing up a tree during the storm, though authorities don”t know why he did this, Sheriff Mike Couvillon said.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said federal and state emergency managers are still in immediate response mode. Supplies won”t move into stricken areas and power restoration won”t begin until the winds die down, he said.
“It”s extremely difficult to get back into areas that are still in the storm,” Fugate said.
The Red Cross is preparing for a long emergency response period, senior vice president Charles Shimanski said. On Tuesday night, the Red Cross housed 5,000 people in 80 shelters, and Shimanski expects those numbers to rise.
Some parts of Louisiana won”t feel Isaac”s impact until Thursday, National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb said.
“It”s still moving very, very slow,” he said. “For some folks, the event hasn”t even begun.”
In New Orleans, police arrested people for looting and the fire department responded to four blazes, said Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who issued a dusk-to-dawn curfew set to start Wednesday night and last until further notice.
“We”re still in this thing, so it”s more important than ever for residents to stay vigilant and remain calm,” Landrieu said.
About 8,200 National Guard members across Louisiana were on hand to help with relief missions and other duties, including providing security in parishes, such as Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines, Gov. Bobby Jindal said.
“Our focus will be on lifesaving missions across these parishes,” he said.
In Plaquemines, water spilled over a levee there in a 12-foot storm surge late Tuesday that flooded homes and stranded some residents.
“We haven”t seen anything like this, not even from Katrina,” said Billy Nungesser, parish president. “Those areas that didn”t flood for Katrina were flooded for this storm. If this is a Category 1 storm, I don”t want to see anything stronger.”
Isaac passed directly over the region of marshland, fishing towns and marinas, peeling off roofs and flooding some areas.
The northern part of the parish is ringed in by the area”s hurricane protection system of fortified levees and flood walls. Stretches of it on the east bank of the Mississippi River and farther south lie outside the protection system, making it vulnerable to storm surge and flooding, Parish Councilman Kirk Lepine said.
Isaac came up the western edge of the parish, lashing the area with powerful winds and storm surge, Lepine said.
“It came in at the worse scenario we can imagine,” he said. “There”s nowhere for that water to go than here.”
Plaquemines Parish rescue efforts were focused Wednesday in the small enclave of Braithwaite, on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Sheriff”s deputies conducted rescue missions of as many as 40 residents trapped in homes as flooding from Isaac overtook the area.
Braithwaite, which is on the outside of a giant floodgate that”s part of the region”s fortified hurricane protection system, received the brunt of Isaac”s punishment when a levee failed, sending floodwaters into homes. Rescue crews in boats retrieved residents from rooftops.
Braithwaite was under a mandatory evacuation order before Isaac hit the Gulf, but some residents chose to stay. The order affected about 3,000 people, including a nursing home with 112 residents.
By noon Wednesday, Louisiana National Guard troops, sheriff”s deputies and rescue crews from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries converged in a staging area near the gate keeping the floodwaters back. Gusty winds continued to hammer the area, hampering rescue efforts.
Just on the other side of the gate from Braithwaite and inside the hurricane-protection system, David Manes, 33, rode out the storm in his house with his three sons, ages 5 to 10. Isaac”s winds snapped trees in half and peeled back some of his roof”s overhang, but overall the home and neighborhood fared well.
“It wasn”t supposed to be this bad,” Manes said. “If I had known it would”ve been this bad, I would”ve stayed with my mother in Mississippi.”
During Katrina, Manes” home was ruined by 9 feet of water, he said. This time around, with the nearby floodgate installed, only small puddles of rainwater pooled in his lawn.
State troopers escorted National Guard troops with high-water vehicles down to the area to help with rescue efforts, state police spokesman Capt. Doug Cain said. Many of the roads in the area had become impassable.
Parish resident Alvin Sylve was preparing to evacuate. “We”ve never seen it this bad,” he said. “The way this wind is shifting.”
Flanked by marshes and water, low-lying Plaquemines Parish has been repeatedly hit by disasters — from Katrina to Gustav to the BP oil spill in 2010.
“The geography of it makes it vulnerable,” Cain said. “But talk about a resilient people. They”ve been through this before, and they”re going to make it through this one.”
St. John the Baptist Parish, about 40 miles west of New Orleans, experienced significant flooding due to storm surge in Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurapas, prompting authorities to evacuate 3,000 residents, Jindal”s office said.
Isaac forced the closures of major roadways throughout the area, including U.S. 90 at the Jefferson Parish/St. Charles Parish line, the causeway over Lake Pontchartrain and LA-73 south of Plaquemines, he said.
Besides dealing with downed trees across roadways from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, state police encountered residents who may have underestimated the storm, he said. Troopers kept busy throughout the night with highway accidents, broken down cars and several DWI arrests.
“Today, we”re really encouraging people to shelter in place,” Cain said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has staged supplies throughout the south in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas and South Carolina. At Mississippi”s Camp Shelby, the agency has 54 generators and 256,000 ready-to-eat meals. At Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, FEMA has 1.2 million meals, 2,134 cots and 3,800 tarps.
In Northern Louisiana, residents braced for the impact of the downgraded but still powerful Isaac, projected to dump 4-6 inches of rain with winds and possible localized flooding and tornadoes as it moves northwest.
In Shreveport, power companies staged crews at hotels, and workers waited for safer weather conditions before heading out to restore power to more than 650,000 customers. School districts in Caddo and Natchitoches parishes announced closures for Thursday and Friday, and a handful of other districts announced Thursday closures. Colleges and universities, including Grambling State and the University of Louisiana, also announced closures.
The 350 miles of levees and flood walls surrounding and meandering through New Orleans were holding back storm surge water as designed early Wednesday, city spokesman Hayne Rainey said. The city had not received any reports of levee breaches or calls for rescues, he said.
The Lake Borgne surge barrier, a $1 billion massive structure in the eastern part of the city erected after Katrina, stopped a 15-foot storm surge from Isaac headed to the Lower 9th Ward and other parts of the city, said Bob Turner, regional director of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, a quasi-state agency created after Katrina to monitor levee improvements. Without that 26-foot-high barrier, storm water would have spilled over levees and flooded neighborhoods ravaged by Katrina, he said.
“You would have had water flowing in the Lower 9th Ward again,” Turner said. “The barrier did its job.”
Isaac dumped about 8 inches of rain on New Orleans over 24 hours, taxing the city”s drainage pumps, which are able to pump out about 1 inch an hour, Turner said. That led to some street flooding, but no reports of structure flooding , he said.
Early reports from Isaac”s effects were far different from the events that unfolded around Hurricane Katrina— which slammed the region seven years to the day and led to levee breaches and mass flooding of the city. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt the levee and floodwall system in the New Orleans area to be much stronger at a cost of $14 billion.
The storm landed at 3:15 a.m. ET just west of Port Fourchon, about 60 miles south-southwest of New Orleans, the National Hurricane Center said.
In the Lower 9th Ward, where residents stranded on rooftops became a lasting image of Katrina, floodwaters didn”t even reach the foot of the floodwalls and there was no sign of significant flooding in the streets.
During Katrina, Gloria Guy, 72, spent 9-1/2 hours on the roof of her flooded home before being rescued. On Wednesday, Guy said she mostly slept through Isaac in a new home built by Brad Pitt”s Make It Right Foundation, which builds new homes at affordable prices to Lower 9th Ward residents. The home barely made a sound during the storm, she said.
“Much better than Katrina,” Guy said. “Besides not having any lights, everything”s fine.”
The historic French Quarter that forms the heart of New Orleans” tourism industry appeared to have dodged the worst of Isaac. Downed tree limbs, minor flooding at intersections and a brief electrical outage overnight were the main problems confronting the residents who stayed mostly indoors.
“Honestly, man, it”s just been rain,” said Huggington “Huggy” Behr, manager of Flanagan”s Pub on St. Phillips, which stayed open through the night and served “about a dozen” patrons. “To us, we”ve seen the worst, so it”s business as usual.”
More than half a million Louisiana homes and businesses have lost power during Isaac, and most will stay that way for at least several days, Entergy power company spokesman Chanel Lagarde said.
As of 8 p.m. ET Wednesday, 654,000 customers were without electricity, including 85% of New Orleans, Lagarde said.
Entergy, which serves most of Louisiana, initially planned to dispatch 4,000 workers to repair the power lines once the storm passed. Since outages are so widespread, the company said it will need 10,000 workers. Crews from power companies in 24 states, through mutual aid agreements, will pitch in.
“The one thing that”s really hampering us is that the winds are still here,” Lagarde said. “Looks like it won”t be until tomorrow (Thursday) that we can get out there.”
Workers cannot go up in bucket trucks to do repairs until the winds drop below 30 mph.
Entergy expects it will take “several days” before the company can restore power to most of its customers. The company will not have a more accurate estimate until the storm subsides and workers can assess the damage, Lagarde said.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said the state has been fortunate so far, with no reports of injuries or deaths through Wednesday afternoon.
With Isaac”s winds keeping the storm surge close to 10 feet thought the coast, up to three inches of rain falling per hour and tornadoes spotted throughout the state, he urged people to remain inside.
“The surge continues. Unfortunately so does the rain and the wind,” Bryant said from an emergency operations center in Gulfport. “People appear to be almost ignoring the tornado warnings. This is a very dangerous situation.”
Statewide, over 31,000 homes were without power Wednesday afternoon. Seventy roads were closed near the coast and rescue crews on boats and National Guard trucks had rescued 58 people.
Most of those rescues were in Hancock County, which borders Louisiana, where flooding was widespread and close to floods seen during Katrina.
In Harrison County, the rising waters knocked a boat off its moorings. County Emergency Management Director Rupert Lacy said the boat slammed into Popps Ferry Bridge, forcing officials to shut it down until crews can inspect the integrity of the bridge. The bridge is one of two connecting Biloxi from the mainland, but Lacy said it could be a long time before an inspection can be done.
“We cautioned our public-safety employees … that you don”t need to be out there if the winds are too high,” Lacy said.
Bryant told WLOX-TV that he had spoken with President Obama and requested an expedited major disaster declaration to begin the next phase of the storm response.
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency reported that 24,400 homes were without power.
Mississippi Gaming Commission Executive Director Allen Godfrey said none of the casinos, which were ordered closed and evacuated before the storm, experienced structural damage during Isaac.
“Structurally, we”re doing very well,” said Gulf Shores spokesman Grant Brown. “A couple of homes had some vinyl siding pulled off, and a little piece of sheet metal was torn off one roof. We have some water under some lower condominium areas, but no water is in buildings, as far as we can tell.”
The berm along the beach held, with one small breach. High tide in this area is expected around late morning, and officials anticipated 3- to 4-foot storm surges. That could cause some additional flooding of roads in low-lying areas, Brown said.
In Orange Beach, the storm demolished a number of boat piers and docks but caused little damage to homes, city Administrator Ken Grimes said.
The city”s public beaches were open, although no swimming was allowed.
“We really did well,” Mayor Tony Kennon said. “We had minimal flooding in the usual areas. We were fortunate that we were spared. Our hearts go out to the people of Mississippi and Louisiana that are having to deal with it.”
Traffic and other activity was picking up. Businesses reopened under cloudy skies, off-and-on rain and occasional gusts of wind.
“By tomorrow, anyone that comes into town almost wouldn”t even know something had happened here other than a major thunderstorm,” Grimes said.
Along with New Orleans, airports in other Gulf cities – including those in Pensacola, Fla., Biloxi, Miss., and Mobile, Ala. — also were closed.
Because Isaac has forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights since the weekend, most airlines have notified passengers that they can rebook their flights without having to pay a fee.
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.
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. Hospitals in New Orleans remained open for emergencies and kept patients, but discharged people with less serious conditions and postponed outpatient services and elective surgeries.
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.