Hurricane Isaac has swept into New Orleans exactly seven years after the devastating Katrina, stranding people in cars and homes as it pushed flood waters over defences in one rural area.
Forecasters warned that dangerous storm surges and flooding from heavy rain were expected to last into the night as Isaac crawled from the Gulf Coast over Louisiana after driving a wall of water nearly 11 feet high inland.
Isaac, a lowest-category 1 hurricane, still brought the threat of almost two feet of rain to a coastal region where many areas are under sea level. Wind gusts of more than 60 miles per hour and sheets of rain raked the nearly empty streets of New Orleans.
The director of the US National Hurricane Centre, Rick Knabb, reminded people that the first half of Isaac had not moved through the area yet.
The full picture of damage was not yet clear. “It’s going to be frustrating,” the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Craig Fugate, said. “The response will start when conditions allow, not when the sun shines.”
Issac was far less strong than Katrina, which left 1,800 dead but resulted in the widespread strengthening of the city’s flood defences. Still, tens of thousands of people in low-lying Louisiana and Mississippi had been told to leave before Isaac arrived.
Officials said New Orleans’ flood protections system was holding up so far, but army engineers said they expected to be on “high alert” for the next 12 to 24 hours.
Rescuers in armoured vehicles saved a family after the roof was ripped off their house in Terrebonne Parish, a fishing village about 40 miles south-west of New Orleans, said Sheriff Jerry Larpenter. He said others had called wanting to be evacuated.
“I think a lot of people were caught with their pants down,” he said.
The storm also flooded beachfront roads before dawn in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Isaac’s slow track meant the storm could dump up to 20 inches of rain in some areas, said Ken Graham, chief meteorologist at the National, Weather Service office in Slidell, Louisiana.
Power was knocked out to more than 500,000 customers across southern Louisiana, most of them in New Orleans.
The storm has drawn intense scrutiny because of its timing ---- coinciding with Katrina and the first major speeches of the Republican National Convention in Florida, already delayed and tempered by the storm.
Katrina became a symbol of government ignorance and ineptitude, and President Barack Obama has sought to demonstrate his ability to guide the nation through a natural disaster, saying Americans will help each other recover “no matter what this storm brings.”