Isaac Heads to New Orleansby TIMOTHY W. MARTIN and MIGUEL BUSTILLO and MIKE ESTERL, online.wsj.com
August 28th 2012 2:35 AM
NEW ORLEANS—Nearly seven years to the day since Hurricane Katrina struck this city, a fast-approaching storm, smaller but still potent, is expected to test the Gulf Coast's new flood control systems and its emergency officials.
Tropical Storm Isaac was forecast late Monday to grow into a Category 2 hurricane with winds around 100 miles per hour before coming onshore Tuesday or early Wednesday. While that would make it less powerful than Katrina, a Category 3 hurricane at landfall along the Gulf Coast, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said Isaac could push a substantial amount of water into low-lying areas, with a storm surge of up to 12 feet in coastal Mississippi and Louisiana.
State and local authorities escalated emergency preparations Monday, and residents of New Orleans and other coastal areas began evacuating well ahead of the threat—a sign that many were heeding lessons from the late and lackadaisical preparations for Katrina in 2005.
In Tampa, Fla., top Republican officials were closely monitoring Isaac's movements, fearful that a hurricane slamming into New Orleans would distract from the GOP convention and summon memories of the last Republican administration's handling of Katrina.
Since Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has built up a $15 billion ring of defenses in and around the city—a 350-mile flood protection network designed to protect it from a so-called 100-year storm or flood, roughly the equivalent of a Category 3 hurricane like Katrina. The upgrades include 350,000 tons of rocks at the entrance to the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a canal that critics said funneled water into New Orleans during Katrina. Miles of levees and flood walls have also been heightened and reinforced.
Still, some engineers and local politicians have argued the defenses may not be stout enough for the most severe hurricanes New Orleans can face.
New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu said the city wasn't under a mandatory evacuation order because of the new flood-control measures, and because Isaac appears to be weaker than Katrina. The city is recommending evacuations for a small portion of the city not protected by levees. But he and others warned of the threat of substantial wind, water and electrical damage."Today is the day for folks living in those areas to get out of harm's way," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Monday at a news conference in Baton Rouge.
About a third of Louisiana's 64 parishes were under a hurricane warning, including most of metropolitan New Orleans, said Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for the state's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
More than 4,000 National Guard troops were activated, including about 300 enlisted as bus drivers to help move people out of harm's way. At least nine nursing homes with nearly 1,000 residents were being evacuated, the governor added.
Gov. Jindal, who was expected to speak at the Republican National Convention, said Monday he planned to stay behind to lead the storm response.
Talking to reporters Monday, a senior Romney adviser, Russ Schriefer, said he was confident the party would still be able to broadcast its political message.
Some GOP organizers said they worried the storm could muffle the party's prime-time opportunity to reach voters and could make it difficult to direct political attacks on the president in the middle of a natural disaster. They also expressed concerns the storm could give President Barack Obama a chance to exercise the power of his office in the middle of their quadrennial convention.
Mr. Obama signed an emergency declaration for Louisiana, the only state that has requested one. The declaration makes federal funds available for such storm preparations as purchasing supplies and paying overtime to police and firefighters.
The president was briefed Monday afternoon during a conference call with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate and National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb. He also had a call with the governors of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, as well as Mr. Landrieu. "The president made clear that he has directed Administrator Fugate to make sure the governors have the resources they need as the storm approaches," the White House said in a statement.
Authorities said the storm danger was impossible to pinpoint. A hurricane warning was in effect Monday from Morgan City, La., west of New Orleans, through Alabama.
"This is not a New Orleans storm, this is a Gulf Coast storm," said Mr. Fugate. "Some of the heaviest impacts may be in Mississippi and Alabama,'' He noted that the storm's greatest impact may be its storm surge and overall amount of rainfall inland, which could reach up to 20 inches in some places.
The American Red Cross said it was preparing to open shelters in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and had deployed more than 1,500 disaster workers to the Gulf Coast region.
The Salvation Army had 24 mobile feeding units ready in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The canteens, which can serve 21,000 meals daily, will be stationed in city centers and evacuation shelters where needed, said spokesman Mark Jones.
FEMA has trucked in water and meals to areas from the panhandle of Florida to Louisiana, a spokesman said. Officials as far as Arkansas were planning for an influx of evacuees.
In contrast to Hurricane Katrina, Tropical Storm Isaac has persuaded many New Orleans residents to leave town early. The Union Passenger Terminal downtown was nearly empty by midafternoon on Monday—most departing trains and buses were sold out.
Daphne Espadron, age 47, who was hoping to catch a 5 p.m. bus, said she was taking no chances. She decided Monday morning to leave her housing complex a few blocks east of the Superdome, to stay with her daughter in Texas.
Others were still deciding Monday whether to leave. Lisa Rickert, a fourth generation New Orleans resident, said that unless Isaac strengthened, planned to remain in her two-story home in the Lakeview neighborhood, which flooded in 2005 after a levee failed.
"I'm going to watch the news, keep an eye on updates and make a decision first thing tomorrow morning," said Ms. Rickert, 30 years old, whose former house in Metairie was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina.
More than 430 flights were canceled Monday, including 167 in or out of Miami, according to FlightAware.com, a flight-tracking service; 857 were canceled Sunday. The energy industry pulled workers from more than half of the nearly 600 oil and gas production platforms dotting the Gulf, and refineries also began shutting down.
Preparations were especially intense in coastal Louisiana areas directly in the storm's most likely path.
A version of this article appeared August 28, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Isaac Heads To New Orleans.
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