Hurricane heads for New Orleans

Hurricane heads for New Orleans

Hurricane Isaac has lashed the Louisiana coast and is heading for a shuttered New Orleans, sending floodwaters surging and unleashing fierce winds.

Residents of New Orleans waited out another storm just hours shy of the seventh anniversary of the devastating Hurricane Katrina.

Isaac’s approach left deserted streets from New Orleans’ famous French Quarter to Tampa 480 miles away, where Republicans at their party’s national convention pressed on with only a passing mention of the storm’s arrival.

A Category 1 hurricane with winds at 80 mph, Isaac came ashore near the mouth of the Mississippi River in south-eastern Louisiana, drenching a sparsely populated neck of land that stretches into the Gulf of Mexico. But the worst was still to come as the slow-moving storm chugged along on a track that would take it just west of New Orleans, roughly 70 miles to the north.

At midnight on Tuesday, the hurricane had slowed to a forward speed of 7mph. It was forecast to slow even further over the next day or two as it drifts over the south-eastern coast of Louisiana before heading inland, according to an advisory from the US National Hurricane Centre in Miami.

While much less powerful than Katrina in 2005, Isaac unleashed fierce winds and soaking rains that knocked out power to more than 200,000 homes and businesses.

The storm drew intense scrutiny because of its timing – just before the anniversary of the hurricane that devastated New Orleans – while the first major speeches of the Republican National Convention went on in Tampa, Florida, already delayed and tempered by the storm.

While many residents stayed put, evacuations were ordered in low-lying areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, where officials closed 12 shorefront casinos.

One of the main concerns along the shoreline was storm surge, which occurs when hurricane winds raise sea levels off the coast, causing flooding on land.

A storm surge of 10.3 feet was reported at Shell Beach, Louisiana, while a surge of 6.7 feet was reported in Waveland, Mississippi, the Hurricane Centre said.

Ed Rappaport, the centre’s deputy director, said Isaac’s core would pass west of New Orleans with winds close to 80 mph and head for Baton Rouge.

“On this course, the hurricane will gradually weaken,” Mr Rappaport said. He said gusts could reach about 100 mph at times, especially at higher levels, which could damage high-rise buildings in New Orleans.

As Isaac neared the city, there was little fear or panic. With New Orleans’ airport closed, tourists retreated to hotels and most residents of a coastline that has witnessed countless hurricanes decided to ride out the storm.

“Isaac is the son of Abraham,” said Margaret Thomas, who was trapped for a week in her home in New Orleans’ Broadmoor neighbourhood by Katrina’s floodwaters, yet chose to stay put this time. “It’s a special name that means ’God will protect us’.”

Officials, chastened by memories and experience, advised caution.

“We don’t expect a Katrina-like event, but remember there are things about a Category 1 storm that can kill you,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, urging people to use common sense and to stay off any streets that may flood.

Tourists and residents alike appeared to have heeded that warning. Shortly after midnight in and around the French Quarter, streets normally packed with partiers were deserted, washed by sheets of rain and blown by winds that made hanging building signs swing wildly.

“Nobody is actually out here partying from what I’ve seen,” said Jared Farrell, a parking valet for several hotels.

Tracy Smith, 26, a New Orleans resident who checked into the La Quinta hotel just outside the quarter to ride out the storm with her family, ducked outside shortly after midnight to gauge the storm’s severity.

Mr Farrell yelled over to her to watch out for a restaurant sign that had become partially detached from a building and threatened to fly off.

Smith, a former deputy sheriff, was trapped for several days with about 100 inmates in a New Orleans jail during Hurricane Katrina, up to her waist in floodwaters. She is still haunted by the experience.

“That’s why I was panicked for this storm,” she said.

Tens of thousands of people were told to leave low-lying areas, including 700 patients of Louisiana nursing homes, but officials decided not to call for mass evacuations like those that preceded Katrina, which packed 135 mph winds in 2005.

Isaac also promised to test a New Orleans levee system bolstered after the catastrophic failures during Hurricane Katrina. But in a city that has already weathered Hurricane Gustav in 2008, calm prevailed.

“I feel safe,” said Pamela Young, who settled in to her home in the Lower 9th Ward – a neighbourhood devastated by Katrina – with her dog Princess and television. “Everybody’s talking ’going, going,’ but the thing is, when you go, there’s no telling what will happen. The storm isn’t going to just hit here.”

Ms Young, who lives in a new, two-storey home built to replace the one destroyed by Katrina, said she was not worried about the levees.

“If the wind isn’t too rough, I can stay right here,” she said, tapping on her wooden living room coffee table. “If the water comes up, I can go upstairs.”

While far less powerful than Katrina, Isaac posed similar political challenges, a reminder of how the storm seven years ago became a symbol of government ignorance and ineptitude.

Political fallout was already simmering. Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, who cancelled his trip to the Republican convention, said the Obama administration’s disaster declaration fell short of the federal help he had requested, and asked for a promise to be reimbursed for storm preparation costs.

“We learned from past experiences, you can’t just wait. You’ve got to push the federal bureaucracy,” Mr Jindal said.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said such requests would be addressed after the storm.

Mr Obama promised that Americans will help each other recover, “no matter what this storm brings.”

“When disaster strikes, we’re not Democrats or Republicans first, we are Americans first,” Mr Obama said at a campaign rally at Iowa State University. “We’re one family. We help our neighbours in need.”

In Tampa, the storm’s landfall did not appear to affect prime-time coverage or the Republican National Convention speeches. One of the few mentions of the storm came in the opening remarks by Ann Romney, wife of the Republican nominee.

“Just so you all know, the hurricane has hit landfall and I think we should take this moment and recognise that fellow Americans are in its path and just hope and pray that all remain safe and no life is lost and no property is lost,” she told the crowd.

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