NEW ORLEANS: Tropical Storm Isaac bore down on the U.S. Gulf Coast, packing swirling winds and rain and posing a major test of the region’s new flood control systems seven years after Hurricane Katrina sent walls of water crashing across its shoreline. Rain and tropical storm force winds were expected to spread into the region in the coming hours, the US National Hurricane Center said, as computer forecast models increasingly showed the storm likely to make landfall near southeastern Louisiana as a full-blown hurricane. Isaac appeared to be taking direct aim at New Orleans, which would be a cruel blow for a city still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina which swept across the city almost exactly 7 years ago on August 29, 2005, killing more than 1,800 people and causing billions of dollars of damage.
Authorities encouraged thousands of residents in low-lying areas to evacuate, warning the storm could flood towns and cities in at least three US Gulf Coast states with a storm surge of up to 12 feet (3.6 metres). Isaac also threatened heavy rainfall, with possibly as much as 18 inches (46 cms) in areas, potentially triggering flooding in some coastal areas. The storm was forecast to strengthen into a Category 1 hurricane, the lowest on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity, with top winds of 90 miles per hour (145 kph). While that would be well below the intensity of Katrina, a powerful Category 3 storm, the vast size of Isaac’s slow-moving system has forecasters predicting widespread flooding.
“Even if it is a tropical storm at landfall, the large size of it will still generate significant storm surge,” Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb told reporters. “That is life-threatening potentially.” Residents in coastal communities from Louisiana to Mississippi stocked up on food and water and tried to secure their homes, cars and boats.
In New Orleans, a bumper-to-bumper stream of vehicles left the city on a highway toward Baton Rouge in search of higher ground. Others prepared, or were forced, to ride the storm out. “Our flights were canceled so we’re going to be here,” said Karen Foley, a 23-year-old tourist who had planned to travel home to New Jersey with a friend. “We are just hoping the city doesn’t get hit again. It doesn’t deserve it,” she said.
Along Canal Street in New Orleans’ historic French Quarter, crews were boarding up the windows of some stores and businesses. “I’m not all that concerned about the storm. It’s still a Category 1,” said Charles Neeley, a 69-year-old contractor overseeing workers covering the windows of a CVS drugstore.
“We usually ride out ones and twos, and get the hell out for threes and fours.” Nonetheless, Neeley said he’d taken care to stock up on food and water at home and fuel his generator. Isaac was centered 145 miles (235 km) southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River with top sustained winds of 70 miles per hour (110 kph) – a speed that places the storm very near hurricane status – and swirling northwest at 12 mph (19 kph). The storm was more than 400 miles (645 km) wide and Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the worst effects may well be in Mississippi and Alabama.