Tropical Storm Isaac churned across the Gulf of Mexico yesterday, disrupting US offshore energy production and threatening to hit Louisiana on the anniversary of the devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The storm swiped south Florida before moving into warm Gulf waters, where it is expected to strengthen into a hurricane today.
On its current track, Isaac was due to slam into the Gulf Coast anywhere between Florida and Louisiana by tonight or early tomorrow, the seventh anniversary of Katrina hitting New Orleans, the US National Hurricane Centre said.
“The weather is going to go downhill well in advance of that and that’s why today is the day of preparation,” said NHC director Richard Knabb.
Speaking in an interview with CNN, Knabb said coastal flooding or a storm surge up to 12ft was the biggest threat posed by Isaac, with mandatory evacuations possible across south-eastern Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
The governors of all three have declared states of emergency as a hurricane warning went into effect for the northern Gulf Coast from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle.
That included New Orleans, devastated when Hurricane Katrina swept over the city on Aug 29, 2005, killing more than 1,800 people and causing billions of dollars of damage along the coast.
“It is difficult to realise that to the day — seven years after Katrina — another hurricane is headed our way,” Mississippi governor Phil Bryant said.
Yesterday, Isaac was about 500km south-east of the mouth of the Mississippi River with top sustained winds of 105km/h and moving north-west at 22km/h
It was expected to be centred over the Gulf Coast no later than early tomorrow. Evacuation orders for some low-lying parts of the Gulf Coast were already in effect yesterday morning.
Energy producers in the Gulf worked to shut down some of their operations ahead of what could be the biggest test for US energy installations since 2008, when Hurricanes Gustav and Ike disrupted offshore oil output for months and damaged onshore natural gas processing plants, pipelines, and some refineries.
Gulf residents started stocking up on supplies and securing their homes. In New Orleans, long lines formed at some petrol stations and in Gulfport, Mississippi, people crowded supermarkets to buy bottled water and canned food.
“I sense a high level of anxiety,” said New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu. “The timing, as fate would have it, on the anniversary of Katrina has everybody in a state of alertness, but that is a good thing.”
Isaac is forecast to become a hurricane today. In its latest advisory, the NHC said the storm was not expected to strengthen well beyond category 1, the weakest type on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity.
Knabb said very warm water temperatures in the Gulf, currently about 30-30.5 Celsius, could easily trigger strengthening beyond category 1.
Issac’s westward track meant the worst of its weather would miss Tampa, Florida, where the Republican National Convention was to open its four-day meeting yesterday. Official convention events were delayed until today because of the storm.
In south Florida, winds from Isaac forced cancellations of hundreds of flights in and out of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and other south Florida airports on Sunday. Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Gimenez reported more than 500 cancellations affecting Miami International Airport alone.
The storm killed at least 20 people and caused significant flooding and damage in Haiti and the Dominican Republic before sweeping across the southern tip of Florida on Sunday.
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